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Renaissance MEN

Le Tigre's JD Samson and friends fuse music and visual art, dance-pop and politics

MEN assert their birthright (with guitars and dance beats).

By Judy Berman | Posted 11/11/2009

MEN

Sonar, Nov. 12

For more information visit sonarbaltimore.com

What would a man do? That's the question that powered first a DJ duo, then a band, and now a full-blown art collective. After a few months of spinning as a tag team, Le Tigre's JD Samson and Johanna Fateman were flying together on the way to a gig, and Fateman told Samson she had adopted the query as her new philosophy. For her, acting like a man meant being aggressive and demanding more respect. "We were laughing about it, but the whole day in the airport we were getting cut in line," says Samson by phone from her tour bus. She soon suggested they call themselves "MEN."

The name stuck, as Samson and Fateman began to write original music and think of their project as a band. The MEN moniker has even outlived Fateman's full-time participation in the group, which ended when the impending birth of her daughter, Goldie, made it unlikely she'd have time for touring. MEN has since absorbed Hirsute, another band Samson was working with, and the members now think of themselves as an art collective. While Samson, Michael O'Neill, and Ginger Brooks Takahashi--Hirsute's original trio--comprise MEN's core touring line-up, Fateman and visual artist Emily Roysdon contribute as writers and producers.

With new voices and influences in the mix, MEN's sound has evolved past the purely electronic project Samson and Fateman envisioned. "Johanna and I were in this dance-pop world," Samson recalls. "Adding two guitars has brought it to a different place, a genre of music that is dance-y, but also really rock, and even noise." On the band's self-released debut EP, Limited Edition Demo, angular guitars accompany irresistibly juicy synth tracks, without detracting too much attention from the party beats at the core of each song.

But don't be fooled by the music's lighthearted feel. Like Le Tigre (which has been on hiatus since 2006, although the band is currently putting together a live DVD and recently worked with Christina Aguilera), MEN is fueled by the political and social issues that concern its members. Samson says that "Credit Card Babie$," from Limited Edition Demo, is about "how expensive it is you have a baby when you're queer," and the EP's insistent opener "Off Our Backs" also centers on money. "Strangely enough, almost every song becomes about the economy, and more specifically this wartime economy," she observes. "Simultaneously," a lament about "AIDS, cancer, and sickness" with a melody reminiscent of Daft Punk's "One More Time," rounds out the EP.

Samson doesn't see fusing club beats with serious lyrics as problematic. In fact, it's MEN's goal to break boundaries and challenge casual listeners. "I think that's interesting, to have music that's dance-y and fun, but if you listen to the lyrics, they mean something" she muses. "It brings together two sets of people--the people who like the music and the people who like the words--and forces them to co-exist." Samson is passionate about providing a dance-floor soundtrack for the feminist and LGBT communities, and both elements of MEN's music feed that mission. "Women and queers taking up space, and feeling like we have a space to move around and not feel uncomfortable, is political to me," she says.

Hedonism and activism aren't the only disparate worlds MEN hopes to unite. The group doesn't just bill itself as an art collective; it makes good on that title by working with visual artists to move beyond simply recording and performing. "One of the things that's important to us is getting our message across in other ways besides just music," Samson says. "On this tour, we have cardboard protest signs for some of the songs in our set." The props made their debut in June, as part of MEN's U.S. debut performance at New York's New Museum. "We had a bunch of our friends help us out with props and live painting, and that's something we think is important to who we are as a band," she says. "Hopefully, we can continue to do shows that involve other aspects of our art careers."

MEN is re-imagining the music-video form, too. "Instead of remixes, we would [like to] have artists making, maybe, a bunch of different videos for the same song," Samson says. The group has already released music videos directed by such artists as Matt Wolf and K8 Hardy, who, along with Takahashi and Roysdon, is a founding member of the self-described "feminist genderqueer artist collective" LTTR.

So far, the band has managed to build a following without the support of a record label, likely due in large part to Samson's Le Tigre fan base and opening slots on tours with like-minded artists Gossip and Peaches. But now that MEN is recording its first album, an eclectic collection of songs influenced by everyone from Hot Chip to Modest Mouse to Joan Armatrading, the group is considering its promotion and distribution alternatives. "An option, certainly, is to put out ourselves," Samson says. "We're also interested in teaming up with [labels that] have rosters we're interested in.

"Everybody thinks, If I'm smart about this, I'm gonna come up with my own new way of putting out this record, and it's gonna involve chimpanzees throwing it out of airplane. Everyone has an idea of how they're gonna make the record industry work. For us, we just want the record to be out there."

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