Some of My Best Friends: A Conversation with Pansy Division’s Jon Ginoli

by , posted on Tuesday, May 5th, 2009 at 9:48 am

Before Peoria-native Jon Ginoli was even out of his twenties he had done seemingly everything there was to do in music. Having moved to Champaign-Urbana to attend the University of Illinois, he had written for a series of music magazines and fanzines,

been both a radio and club dj, worked in a campus record store, and brought some of the most legendary indie rock bands of the day to town as a concert promoter.

He also played in a band of his own, The Outnumbered, a mainstay of the local music scene in the mid-1980s that released three albums and toured widely, and was remembered by one writer who knew them well as “perhaps the world’s only all-male feminist band, performing anti-misogynist, anti-capitalist, anti-war rants at the height of the Reagan era.”

He is best known, however, for his next band, the path-breaking gay rock band Pansy Division, which he founded in 1991 after moving to San Francisco. Eighteen years later Pansy Division is still around, still recording new material and performing live when most veterans of the earliest days of the gay rock scene have long since disappeared. In March Jon’s memoir, Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division – “The Inside Story of the First Openly Gay Pop-Punk Band” – was published by Cleis Press. Also, a documentary about the band, Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band, has been screened at several gay film festivals this past year and has just been released on DVD by Alternative Tentacles Records. And, to top it all off, Pansy Division has just released a new CD, That’s So Gay, also on Alternative Tentacles.

I recently caught up with Jon on his book tour for Deflowered and we sat down one evening to talk about, what else, life in Pansy Division. (More on whether it’s a “pop-punk” or “rock” band or both, among other things, after the jump.)

n0madic: Perhaps the place to start would be for you to say a little bit about where things stood as you got started with what became Pansy Division. What place did the gay community have in the world of rock? What place did the world of rock have in the gay community?

Jon Ginoli: Well, it was pretty clear that there were gay musicians, but they weren’t out. And, you know, living in Champaign, I was part of the music scene, doing different things over a number of years, where I was able to be pretty successful, either being a dj, or having a band, or promoting shows. And I just felt like my peer group was not in the gay clubs or the gay people that I met, but the musicians and music fans that I knew. They really seemed to be my people. When I started meeting gay people they all thought I was weird because of the music I liked. For hetereosexual people this was really normal. To gay people it just seemed to be really weird. So, I just didn’t really bother paying much attention to gay people until I was about 27. I thought, “Well, if they’re not interested in what I’m interested in, then why bother?” So, that was kinda the way it was before I left Illinois to go to San Francisco. I had the idea for having a gay band in Champaign, but it just seemed impossible. Like “Who would listen to this?” A handful of my friends. But gay people? No way.

n: The subtitle of your book describes

Pansy Division as a “gay pop-punk band.” In other places Pansy Division is described as a “gay rock band.” And in the past one used to see labels like “queercore” and “homocore” used a lot. All of which can be kind of confusing. What should one expect to hear if they’re about to encounter the band for the first time?

JG: I think that the music does not shock people, but the lyrics might. I think it’s catchy, it’s crunchy rock and roll. I usually use the phrase “gay rock band” as opposed to “gay punk band” even though we are, in part, a punk band. The problem is that when you call yourself a punk band you open yourself up to comparison to a lot of things that we’re not really very comparable to. I mean, I think there’s a lot of punk rock that’s really boring, really tedious, and just repeats other things that have gone before, or is more hardcore-oriented, and not melodic, just kinda noisy. So, we come from a place where punk was really important to us, but what punk is now is not so important to us. I say we’re a gay rock band, because it encompasses what we do, but if you call us a gay punk band, too, yeah, it’ll work. But I think people’s idea of punk is usually more harder rocking than us. Or more snotty or something. [laughs]

n: The thing about “queercore” and homocore,” I think, is that people hear the “core” and they think of a certain kind of punk rock music, and not all punk is hardcore. That was what I always found confusing about it.

JG: Yes. You know it’s like “gate.” First there was Watergate, and then there was Filegate, Travelgate. It just gets applied. So, the “core” thing never really fit us, but, oh, well.

n: How does the material you contribute to Pansy Division compare to the songs you wrote for your first band, The Outnumbered?

JG: With The Outnumbered I was trying to be as honest as I could about what I was feeling and what I was going through at that time, what I saw as being true. And if

that was depressing, I thought, “well, so be it.” Well, it was the Reagan era, so it was pretty depressing. And with Pansy Division I wanted to do something that was going to be more optimistic, I wanted it to be more joyful. And it’s not necessarily less political, I think it’s more political inherently, but I’m not talking about political events, which I did sometimes in The Outnumbered, though not frequently. So, I think that it’s more political with a small “p” than The Outnumbered was.

n: Did you grow up longing to hear gay rock and roll? What sorts of influences have gone into the mix that became Pansy Division?

JG: You know, I kinda knew I was gay when I was 12, but didn’t really deal with it until I was 20. So, I didn’t really think I was gay in high school. Although, in retrospect, I sure was. But I was never really seeking to hear gay bands or anything when I was in high school or college. It’s just the things that appealed to me sort of show up in hidden ways. There’s a song by The Outnumbered, on our first album, called “One Desperate Moment,” and a few years, maybe three or four years after I wrote the song and we’re performing it, I realized where that phrase came from. It’s from “American Girl” by Tom Petty. “And for one desperate moment there …” So, things embed themselves in you and you regurgitate them in a way that takes all the different influences and puts them together. I can listen to songs of mine and think “oh, I took this from here and this from there.” But I don’t listen to my music and think, “oh, my god, that’s a Kinks song,” “oh my god, that’s a Ramones song,” or whatever. It all gets jumbled up and combined. So, there’s no one thing. And I wouldn’t even say that later it turns out that gay artists were more important. They were just part of that overall mix. I listened to a lot of Patti Smith, and I listened to a lot of Roxy Music, but I don’t think either of those comes out in my music at all. So, it’s just kind of a crap shoot.

n: In the book you describe how it finally dawned on you that the only way to hear the kind of gay rock band you wanted to hear was to start it yourself. Did you have a kind of master plan, as it were, or was it not that self-conscious, just something developing organically out of the life you were living?

JG: I didn’t have a master plan, I just had a few ideas, and those ideas came from all over the place. In the book I mention Malcolm McLaren, because Malcolm McLaren had this idea for a band, a certain kind of band that he envisioned that didn’t exist. You don’t want to give him too much credit with the Sex Pistols, I mean he just got those people together, he didn’t tell them to sound a certain way, but when they did get together they fit his bill of the kind of band he envisioned. He envisioned punk without having examples of it to point to and say “Look, I want you to sound like this.” So, that’s kind of the way it was with Pansy Division.

I’d moved to San Francisco, and there’s this magazine called Homocore. And then there was a magazine Bruce LaBruce did called J.D.s, juvenile delinquents, and they kind of had the idea for queer punk before there were any queer punk bands. I had the idea cause when I quit The Outnumbered I thought “I’m not going to have another band unless I can have a band where I can completely be myself.” With The Outnumbered I didn’t feel I could cause I was the only gay guy in the band. I mean, even though it was to some extent my band, for me to be singing about gay stuff is to basically make it my solo project, cause the other guys in the band, they might have no problem with me being gay, they didn’t, but at the same time that’s kind of upping the ante about making it my personal statement, as opposed to something that we shared. So I thought, “well, I’m never going to be able to express myself like that,” and I quit playing music. I thought it seemed impossible. It wasn’t until I got to San Francisco, and even then it took me a while after I got there, to realize that not only could I envision an audience for this music, but the time was actually right for it.

n: So you’re launching this band in San Francisco, but you’re not playing disco/dance music, and there’s no tribute to Judy Garland anywhere in evidence. How difficult was it to carve out a place for yourself in the beginning as a gay rock band? How did the, for lack of a better term, “mainstream” gay community react to Pansy Division?

JG: Well, we weren’t really trying to get to the mainstream gay community, we were trying to play for the misfits and the outcasts like us, and by doing that we started getting popular pretty fast. Partly because we were just so funny and in your face at the same time that people were really disarmed by that, they were like taken aback and astonished.

Pansy Division, “Hippy Dude” (live at San Francisco Gay Pride, June 26, 1992)

There’s a story in my book about a friend of mine who came to see me play in one of my early Pansy Division gigs, before I had a band and I was just doing it solo with my electric guitar, but calling it Pansy Division. It was like a free show at a place where my friend was bartending. And my friend was there, and he was gay, but he ran into a couple of straight friends who stayed and watched me. They weren’t there to see me play, they were just hanging out at that bar. And they said that they were completely flabbergasted. They really liked it, but they thought it was just really out on the edge to be singing about what I was singing in such a matter-of-fact and humorous way.

So, it was very aggressive in a way, but it was done with a light touch, so it didn’t come off like protest music, or, you know, serious issue music. It was just about personal politics. I did it with a smile on my face, to make people laugh, to make people laugh not in a jokey way, but in an “oh, I understand that” kind of way. The humor thing is kind of hard to explain sometimes. When you talk about humor then people think “oh, this is silly, this is trivial” but I think it was a really good idea to try to convey my ideas using that approach, rather than just sitting down and pouring my heart out like I did with The Outnumbered.

n: What was it like leaving behind the friendly confines of San Francisco and heading out on tour with a band named “Pansy Division”?

JG: We did not put anything like a Pansy Division sticker or rainbow flag sticker on our van, cause we thought “let’s not be sitting ducks.” We were afraid of what might happen. We felt like we had been successful in San Francisco because it’s San Francisco. I wasn’t really that afraid of going on tour cause I’d been on tour before. The other guys in the band at that time, Chris and David, had never done a tour, so they were quite nervous. I knew how it could go, if it went well, and it did go well. I had this idea in my head, this picture of what a Pansy Division tour would look like and essentially that’s what we did. So, I was pleased that it turned out well. I thought in a worst case scenario there’s people that are waiting for us to beat us up, but we were just too obscure at that point, so people who saw that we were coming were the kind of people who had their ear to the ground anyway. It turned out even though we got a lot more popular and well-known because of the Green Day thing, that’s never really happened to us. And that is the big surprise. To think that we could go out and tour for years and not get attacked and not have problems, that’s a nice surprise.

Pansy Division, with Rob Halford, “Breaking the Law” (live at San Diego Gay Pride, July 26, 1997)

n: You mentioned Green Day, and, of course, awaiting you just down the road a bit was the opportunity to go out on tour with them as their opening act. That happened just as they were breaking on MTV, didn’t it, more or less?

JG: Yes.

n: How did you get that gig?

JG: They had another band, called Tilt, who were on Lookout [Records, which was also Pansy Division’s label at the time, and Green Day’s original label], as their opening band, and they had been touring with them for awhile. They were friends, but they had some kind of falling out. Green Day were very loyal to their old label, and after they heard us it had occurred to them that now that their audience was changing Pansy Division might be a good opening band for them.

Even though Green Day weren’t a political band, they had a kinda indie/underground aesthetic, but suddenly, at the same time, they’re very catchy and commercial in a sense. A lot of bands who seemed commercial in a sense, that you and I liked, never made it anywhere near commercial success. Just cult figures at best. But once Green Day got to that point where they saw that they could be a mainstream success, and they needed an opening band, they thought “well, we could make a statement by having Pansy Division as our opening act.” They did like our band, truly, but they also realized that people would look at them and that they would be like earning credit by having us open for them. That it would set them apart from being just a run-of-the-mill rock and roll band.

Green Day sings Pansy Division

n: Opening for Green Day, suddenly you’re playing for a completely different audience than those who would come out to see you in a club. What was that experience like, playing in front of Green Day’s audience? How did you change what you did?

JG: You know, it didn’t really change what we were writing about, what we were doing our songs about. When we started the band, Chris and I were in our early thirties, and we thought, well, that’s who’s going to like our band, people who are about our age, people who are grown up, are gay, over 25, or whatever age, twenties and thirties, we thought. Because we were on Lookout, even before the Green Day thing, Lookout had such a word-of-mouth, grassroots kind of following as a label among teenagers, so because we were on that label, a lot more teenagers heard us than I would have expected had we been on a different label. And we started getting mail when the first album came out from kids all over the place. Adults, too, but a lot more kids than we expected. A lot more. Then the Green Day thing just pushed that over the edge.

Green Day’s audience has almost no adults in the audience, unless they were there with their kids. They’re college age, but mostly high school. Well, that was a perfect opportunity for us to reach a kind of audience that we wouldn’t have aimed for. But once we realized they could hear us, we did some things, we oriented ourselves a certain way. Played certain songs, maybe, instead of others, said different things on stage, and tried to imagine what … I mean, we started the band, in part, because it was something Chris and I did not have when we were teenagers. Suddenly, here’s teenagers listening to us. So, we thought okay, we’re just going to be ourselves because we’re putting out what we thought we wanted to have, in retrospect, when we were that age, what would have helped us. So we thought, well, we’re not going to change, and kids either will get it or they won’t, and if they don’t, well, okay, we tried, but the ones who do get it, it will be so important to them, and that really turned out to be true.

Pansy Division, “Average Men” (live at The Eagle, San Francisco, January 29, 2009)

n: By 1999, after releasing one CD after another for several years, you’ve played hundreds of shows on the road, from small town America all the way to Madison Square Garden. You’ve toured in Europe, in Australia. But the time came when you were no longer able to sustain yourself as a full-time project that allowed you to make your living playing music. What happened? What changed?

JG: Alternative and punk kinda fell out of favor. The teenage crowd that was into Lookout Records and our kinda stuff grew up a little bit. And then we reached a point where, ’98, the end of 1998, we had toured ourselves into exhaustion. I had felt that we could tap the college market, to play more schools. That would make us more money and let us continue to do the band full-time. However, Luis and Patrick especially did not want to do the band full-time. It was too exhausting for them to tour all the time. I think if we had gone my way, the band history would be somewhat different. Also, the fact that when Patrick joined our band and we became a quartet, dividing things four ways instead of three made it harder.

I think we could have worked and continued to do it, but Luis and Patrick, though they liked touring somewhat, they were not the road warriors that Chris and I were, especially me. I could never get enough of touring. Even when we were having lousy times on tour, I used to say to myself “My God, I’m in a band! I’m touring! This is amazing to me!” So, I think things could have gone differently if everybody had had the same mindset. But I went along with my bandmates wishes.

n: In addition to your book, a documentary, Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band, has just been released on DVD, and I was struck by how they complemented each other, the book and the documentary. Not just because they tell the same basic story, because obviously they do, but because each one is able to emphasize

aspects of the story in ways that the other one doesn’t. Your book is able to go into so much more detail and tell the story of what it’s really like to be on the inside of a rock band, any rock band, or especially the world of rock bands that most musicians end up in, not the world of superstars, which is what we’ve mostly read about.

JG: Yes.

n: And it does that better than anything I’ve ever read before. Then the documentary, by bringing in a variety of other voices, I think it’s actually better able to bring home the manner in which Pansy Division truly broke new ground, because it locates the band in a broader context and it necessarily cuts right to the chase because of the limited amount of time it has to tell it’s story. How did the documentary come about? How is it doing?

JG: The documentary didn’t do as well as I thought it would. It got into a bunch of film festivals, but not some of the bigger ones that I expected we would be in, like New York and LA, because those are big cities for us. I just did four dates in New York in one weekend. So, you know, it’s disappointing that there were two gay film festivals in New York that rejected our film. I realize why. It’s because it’s so easy to make a film now. They are inundated and they only have so many slots. Still, I was disappointed we didn’t make it into one of them.

But the book, one of the differences is that I was in control of the book, I was not in control of the movie. There was a director for the film who was outside our band, Michael Carmona, and he worked on the film with Chris. Chris edited the film, but Michael really made the call about certain things. And the film follows Lookout Records a lot, more so than I would have. I don’t think that’s as important. The book covers that too, but it covers a lot of other stuff that isn’t in the movie. So, I wanted to write a detailed book that still was a quick read, and I wanted to include a lot of things that there wouldn’t have been time to include in the movie.

For instance, in the movie there’s no talk about our safe sex angle. And I think it might be because on the day I was interviewed for it I didn’t mention it, and no one else did either, but it’s one of many things that get addressed in the book that there wasn’t time for or didn’t come up in the film.

n: In addition to the book and the documentary, the band has a new CD of original material out now, too, entitled That’s So Gay, which is something I wasn’t sure we would ever see again. What got you all back into the studio?

JG: I had two songs that I wanted to

record, “You’ll See Them Again” and “Twinkie, Twinkie, Little Star.” I had actually played “Twinkie” with the band, on my solo part — in our lives shows I usually play one song by myself in the middle — and I’d played it for a while. And I thought if we ever get to make another record that’ll be on it. But then several years went by and there was no record. By 2006 we went ten months at one point without playing any gigs, and it just seemed like it was dwindling to a halt as other people got busy with, just life, really.

So, at the beginning of 2007 I said to my bandmates “I want to record these two songs. If nothing else I just want to put them on our website. To me they’re topnotch, high-quality Pansy Division songs I’m disappointed were never on an album.” So I said “I would like to record them with you guys, but if you guys don’t have time or can’t record them, I’ll record them with other people.” To my surprise, everybody said they wanted to do it, cause the message I had gotten before that was “We’re just too busy,” or “I don’t have time, “or “It’s too big of an undertaking to try to make another album.” So, I got together with Chris to do demos. Then he wrote a new song, and he hadn’t written a new one in a long time, and as we were going through other songs that I had I played Chris “20 Years of Cock,” which he had never heard, and we just fell on the floor, kinda like we did in the early days, like the first album, when we were just daring ourselves to outdo ourselves. We thought, okay, it’s a really short song, we gotta do that one, too.

Luis and Joel were going to be in the studio recording a new album by The Plus Ones (this album never came out) in the spring of ’07. They had five days in the studio and this was happening right after I had brought up the idea of wanting to be recording. They said, “well, let’s just add a couple of days of recording time onto the time we’ve already got at the studio we’re at and record these songs?” So we learned them very quickly and went in and knocked them out. And they’re pretty no frills, especially compared to the rest of the album, they’re more stripped down. We had so much fun doing them, and liked the results so much, that it had become really fun to record again.

Pansy Division in the studio recording “You’ll See Them Again”

Total Entertainment, the previous album, before Joel joined the band, was kind of a drag to do. It took a long time to get the songs together, and some of the songs I’m not too thrilled with. It’s the only album I really feel that way about. I like three-quarters of the album, but there are some songs I just thought “wow, these really aren’t songs I’m going to play again.” So that was kind of a drag, but having Joel made a big difference. After doing the four songs we thought “okay, this is not stuff we’re going to put on the website, this is top quality stuff, we’ve gotta make another album.”

n: It seems to me that over the last two or three CDs you guys have really gotten to the point of mastering the blend of all of the different elements of what Pansy Division can be. Do you see a similar sort of growth in the band?

JG: Yes. What happened with Absurd Pop Song Romance, which was really the big leap, is that we went from having a couple of serious songs on each album, and a whole bunch of funny ones, to having a whole bunch of serious ones on one album and only a couple of funny ones. And that was kind of a major strategic change in approach. But for the two albums that have come since then we wanted to find that balance, and I think we find the balance really well.

n: I do remember being really impressed with a particular sequence of songs on Absurd Pop Song Romance where it seemed to me that the sheer popcraft of the band had taken a big leap forward. And on this one there’s another striking sequence of songs, one right after the other – “Some of My Best Friends,” “That’s So Gay,” and “Obsessed with Me” – where there’s a thematic unity that makes an “out and proud” statement of a very forceful kind. One that I’m assuming the band wants to come through loud and clear, given that you titled the CD after one of those songs.

JG: Yes.

n: The other thing that occurred to me after I listened to the CD a few times is that there are a lot of songs on it that are kind of pitched at a non-gay audience, or if not pitched at them exactly, then maybe written in a manner that speaks to a non-gay audience in a way I’m not sure I’ve noticed before. I wondered if I had missed that in the past or …

JG: Yes. Even though our stuff was pretty gay-oriented, I always thought that we had a certain kind of universal appeal, even though that really wasn’t my aim. When I lived in Champaign, even though I was very out at that time, I was hanging around mostly with straight musicians. And I used to dj at the old gay bar, The Bar, as it was called then, in Champaign, and I always drew a mixed audience. There was one person who worked there who had recruited me to dj, and everybody else, the gay people who ran the bar, distained me because I drew a mixed audience. I’ve always drawn a mixed audience. So, I’ve never been in the gay ghetto. I’ve always had a diverse group of friends. I was trying to make gay music, but at the same time it came from a place where just by being me I was having a mixed audience and a reaction that was more universal than maybe you would have expected.

It’s funny though, I’ve had a couple of people tell me that they think that the killer songs, like the trio of killer songs on the last album, are actually the last three: “Pat Me On the Ass,” “Never You Mind,” and “Life Lovers.” They’ve said okay, the album starts off really strong, it’s okay in the middle, and then it finishes even stronger. You might want to check out those three and see what you think. I know what they mean. “Pat Me on the Ass” is really funny and pointed in the way that early Pansy Division is. “Never You Mind” is an “angry Chris” song. I think he writes angry songs pretty well, I wish he would write more of them. And “Life Lovers” is a serious song. Chris’ song is also very “in your face.” “Life Lovers” is a bit more nuanced, but musically it’s probably as good a song as any we’ve ever done. So I think it shows off the evolution of the band, displays it pretty well.

n: With the band still so clearly capable of firing on all cylinders this strongly when it gets back in the studio, what are the chances that Pansy Division will head out on tour again one day, too?

JG: There is a tour happening this summer, but it’s short. Luis co-owns an organic grocery in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. He’s not available as much as I thought he would be this summer. Originally I had expected to do the East Coast, the Midwest, a few cities in the South, and Texas, but Texas and the South got cut out. And some of the Midwest, too. So, instead of doing a three-week tour of the eastern half of the country we’re doing about ten days, eleven days. Then, after a break, we’re doing a west coast tour later on, August or September. That is less than I had wanted, but it is the tour that we’re going to get.

n: So, nearly twenty years further on down the road from where you started with Pansy Division, how does it all look to you now? Does gay rock “play in Peoria” yet?

JG: Nothing plays in Peoria yet!


Jon Ginoli’s book tour will be bringing him to both Euclid Records (early acoustic set) and Left Bank Books (later reading) in St. Louis on Tuesday, May 19th, the Aroma Café in Champaign on Friday, May 22nd, The Tool Shed in Milwaukee on Tuesday, May 26th, and Public Space One in Iowa City on Wednesday, May 27th.

The Outnumbered will be reuniting for the first time in over 20 years to play the Josh Gottheil Memorial Concert on a bill with three other momentarily revived 1980s C-U bands on Sunday, May 24th, at the Highdive, in downtown Champaign. One night only! Reserve your tickets today!

Pansy Division will be playing at Subterranean in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood on Saturday, June 20th. See the Pansy Division website for further information regarding the rest of their tour, as well as other dates on Jon’s book tour.

And last, but not least, Jon’s book Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division can be ordered here, the documentary Pansy Division: Life in a Gay Rock Band can be ordered here, and Pansy Division’s new CD, That’s So Gay, can be ordered here.


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