Playing joyful punk with killer pop-sensibilities since 1991, San Francisco’s Pansy Division has, in spite of working in various capacities with fellow SF punk luminaries such Mr. T Experience, Green Day, The Avengers, and Jello Biafra of Dead Kennedys as well as writing timelessly memorable tunes have never quite grasped the popularity level of those acts. Why? Well, probably because of their explicitly pro-homo content and the fact of their, at the time, being the only act to take such a message so far and deliver it so full-throatily. From another paradigm, however, these cats are easily the most widely heard of any queercore band. Now, 25 years down the line, Pansy Division maintains a loyal following from back then while continually earning new generations of fans. Nice guys all around, Luis Illades (drums), and Chris Freeman (bass and vocals) agree to sit down in their tour bus to talk about, among other things, the band’s history, maintaining the dream, and their specific cultural role in a changing world.
I’m gonna start with a weird question here. This here book on character building for an RPG from the ‘90s (Dark Reflections: Spectres) quotes your song “Deep Water” and my roommate wanted me to ask you to sign it. Have you seen this before?
Luis: Oh, shit! No, I’ve never seen this. (to Chris) Okay, so open this.
Chris: What the hell? That is really odd.
Luis: It just seems so out of place.
Chris: I-I-I- (momentarily at loss for words) I’m thrilled and baffled at the same time.
I’d assumed they would’ve asked you permission or something.
Chris: They don’t have to reprint lyrics…oh, wait, maybe they do! Call Judge Walpner! “Lyrics reprinted by permission”, I’ve seen that before!
Yeah, sue them for every crystal and spell packet they’re worth.
Luis: Y’know what, I had a friend who opened up a business recently in New York that’s a role-playing game store called Twenty-sided, and when she told me about her business plan, I was like “There’s no way that’s gonna work,” and she’s killing it because they have group games in there and she’s selling all this stuff. It’s kind of awesome. I love that exists, and she’s doing great.
Chris: Well that was very odd. I never thought that was a world we’d be part of.
Luis: That’s so strange.
So how’s being in the second-gayest city in America?
Chris: (stoked): Is it really?
Chris: I had no idea. So it’s LA – er, – San Francisco’s first, and then – wow…Well, I love Philadelphia. We went here on our first tour, and we try to come here every tour if possible. I did not know that it was the second gayest city. That’s awesome.
Luis: There ya go.
Chris: Very friendly.
Luis: Oh, we had our film showing here at the Philadelphia Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. I think that was ’08.
That was the documentary? I haven’t had a chance to see it yet.
Luis: It’s on YouTube now. “Life in a Gay Rock Band” Just look on YouTube and it’ll be there.
One thing I wanted to ask that the documentary might have touched on is what has your experience in the south and Midwest been like?
Luis: It’s been a while.
Luis: Honestly, i’d say we do better on the coasts than in the Midwest. We do well in Austin, and I think we do well in Chicago. We also do well in certain towns like Gainesville, Florida. There are bohemian enclaves in the south. Obviously, we go to people – what was that town we went to in Missouri, where we met all those kids and went to that house. Was it Columbia, Missouri?
Chris: Uh, yes. That was it.
Luis: There are some cool college towns and some weird bohemian circles. I just personally was in Birmingham, Alabama recently, and, y’know, I don’t want to move there, but I had some decent experiences there, and I had some weird undercurrents. Y’know there’s something weird about the south where people don’t say stuff, but there’s a feeling or general undercurrent involved. In fact, that was what John (Ginoli, guitars/vocals) – John wrote that song on the last album called “The Average Man” with Jello Biafra, and that was a lot about an undercurrent late at night, and just kind of general unspoken…
Chris: Y’know, we actually thought we’d do worse in the south like we would be actively sought for something, and we never did. In fact, the worst reaction I had was right in Bakersfield, California, so go figure.
It’s all those Korn fans.
Chris: Exactly! Um, but to get to the coasts, you go across the states somewhere. Usually, we loop around and do the top half or the bottom half depending on reasons, but we haven’t had any need to do anything other than the coasts.
Luis: Yeah, we’ll fly into Austin, Chicago, or certain other places. We used to tour seven-eight months out of the year, and cover every inch of this country and Canada as well. Everywhere! Any town!
Chris: I think part of it is we wanted to make sure that the band could last. The thing that brings a band down the most is shitty shows. If you travel all that way, and you’re playing to ten people-
Luis: In a cornfield (laughs).
Chris: – It takes a lot to get a band from one city to another, and you get those shows and it just brings the band down. So we thought “Let’s just cut out the stuff that we don’t want to do anymore, we don’t have to.”
Luis: We used to really get off on that thought, and something changed. We did get off on playing all those small towns, and it was fun to us, and then at one point –
Chris: – money.
Luis: It’s also just diminishing returns of enthusiasm, and people would still come out and see us, but all the things you sacrifice in your life to be on the road, it wasn’t worth it anymore. It was call when you were in your twenties and early thirties even, but at a certain point it’s “Alright, I’m not going to sacrifice being in a healthy relationship, or having any kind of security, sublet my apartment every time just to cover the bills, get in a van, to play the Knights of Columbus hall in Toledo.” That’s not diminishing playing the Knights of Columbus hall in Toledo, ‘because it used to be awesome, but when you’re in your forties…
It reminds me of that first scene in Hedwig and The Angry Inch where she’s playing for these people eating dinner. Does even that come with a sort of thrill of shaking people?
Luis: I think there’s less a thrill of shaking people and more of a resigned showbiz exhaustion.
Chris: We finished our last tour in ’99. I’d say that was our last big year of touring, right? I was about to turn forty and I realized “I’ve got twenty-five more years of earning power before I retire and I have nothing.” I had nothing. Nothing, nothing, nothing. Zilch. So I thought “I’ve gotta change my life”. If this had happened to me ten years earlier – I was already thirty when I joined Pansy Division, so it was like “Oh, I’m gonna do this, this is gonna be great,” but I can’t live on three hundred dollars a month anymore. I think it was probably me that put my foot down and said “I’m sorry, guys. I can’t tour anymore. I gotta get a career and get going on something. It’s going to take me a while to get a career and figure out what I want to do, and then I don’t wanna break the band up, but this is never getting any better for us. We’re not going to get richer. We’re not gonna all make some huge amount of money, and on top of it, if we have to do that because of our livelihood, then what is that doing to the band? Is it putting an undue weight on the band that it becomes our resource for our living?”
Luis: And what does that do to the music?
Chris: Exactly! All these things were impacted. Now we put out albums when we want to, we write songs when we want to, we tour when we want to, and it’s far more enjoyable and rewarding. This little tour we’re doing is far more rewarding than slogging it out.
Luis: Also, when you define yourself by it, when it’s the only thing you’re doing, you live by this band, and it defines everything that you do, which is, in a way, very much living in the moment, living within the message of your band, if anything doesn’t go well it kind of destroys you. The nice thing is coming back to this band with an excitement to do it, and a belief in what you’re doing instead of a resigned, imagined resilience that you think that you have to have. This band always had something to prove, and now I don’t feel like we do – I mean, we do!…there’s more to us than just this. This is one of the biggest points in history in all of our lives. We have to come back to it and keep adding to it, finding new ways to say the things that we want to say.
Chris: If people in the band are suffering personally, then how can the band survive? So, let’s take care of number one, because the band’s never gonna survive if i’m – know what I mean?
On top of that, then you look at “Do we have to put out an album every year? Is there a reason for that? Is anybody super waiting for that, or do we just need to put out another album so we can have another excuse to go out on tour so we can pay rent?” That didn’t wash with me anymore at a certain point, because I could see that we’re not gonna get huge.
I dunno. You’ve got the right pop sensibilities.
Luis: Well, they can’t sell us in Walmart and shit like that. That’s not important now, but it used to be very important.
Chris: Y’know, we talked to major labels and they said “Love your band. Never gonna sign you because what would be the point? We’d have to put warning stickers on your records.” That’s their paradigm. So there were a number of reasons but now it’s a lot healthier, and we do things that we like.
It seems like you live on this knife’s edge of keeping the momentum going with this band while being healthy, happy people with lives. When you all live in different cities, what tells you to put out an album?
Chris: Well, we overlooked our twentieth anniversary; it kind of came and went, and we thought “Well, it’s twenty-five coming up.” That seems more of a quarter century
Y’know, I’m as old as this band.
Chris: Holy Toledo!
Chris: Unbelievable. Yeah, see, now that makes me feel great, but i’m also like “Oh, God, I’m old!” (All laugh). We kind of messed around with our formula a bit over the years, but really what it comes down to is when John has a group of about maybe a dozen songs, then we know it’s time to get to work. There were some points when John went back to school after he did his book and we did our tour in ’09. He went back to school, got a degree in paralegal so he could do the same thing that I was doing, which was “Okay, I’m gonna get a career, get started, and start making money so I can actually retire at 65.” He wasn’t writing a lot after that last record, but then I went up and he had five songs, we had these demos, and we had the twenty-fifth anniversary. I put some songs together, Joel (Reader, guitar) and Luis put some songs together, and it just happened. It was good. It was like “Okay, that’s an album. That feels like a record. Now it makes sense. Let’s do it.” That was kind of it.
Luis: We trade too; we send demos to each other. I drive from New York to Boston and kind of workshop the songs with Joel. Chris would drive from LA to San Francisco and workshop songs with John, but we have enough albums. It’s not like anyone’s gonna be shedding any tears if we don’t make another one, but we had to feel like there was something that we needed to do and something that we needed to say. Part of it’s just because we enjoy each other’s company and we love making music together. Part of it is, a long time ago, part of the conversation was, especially for Chris, “Imagine a time when this band doesn’t need to exist anymore.” In a way, we’ve met some of those markers, culturally, but no one came along and did anything else. We thought there was gonna be all these younger queer punk bands coming up. It kind of didn’t happen.
Well, there’s Limpwrist.
Luis: There are so many bands that come and go and break up over such trivialities, and we realized all the different things we’ve been through. We’ve still stayed friends, stayed collaborators, and that speaks to a lot of things. I mean, how many bands do you know of that kind of had a good thing going and then just broke up because they had a disagreement that they just couldn’t get over? So many. We have a gift that we’re nice and generous to each other. We have our issues, sure, but we forgive each other and we try to find a way to work together. Being on the other end of that, being a little bit older, and I guess this is the point that I wanna make is that the generation previous to us died out from AIDS. When we were younger and kind of coming of age, we didn’t have a lot of role models to look up to. Not a lot of us were – a lot of our history was in the closet, but a lot of the people that were one generation ahead of us weren’t around. You could seek out your Gore Vidals, you could seek out your James Baldwins, and you could seek out these people, but there weren’t a lot of stories being told. I think that we all found that to be very important and I think when we started writing these songs we thought “Oh, god, a lot of these songs are about getting older and change of the times.” We were wondering if that was gonna be tired or not, but we realized that’s incredibly valuable, especially for a lot of people that are coming of age in an era where HIV is an inconvenience rather than a death sentence, where they can swipe left or right on their phones to decide if they’re gonna get up off the couch and go smooch somebody. There are a lot of things that are wonderful luxuries that people have today, but I think it’s important to know what it’s like on the other end, both the beauty of growing older and falling in love, and fears of not realizing the holes you’ve dug yourself into until it’s too late to dig yourself out of them. I think that’s a lot of why we felt this record needs to exist.
Chris: Yeah. We played a show in San Francisco and Jello (Biafra, Dead Kennedys) came up and said “Y’know, I think it’s time for another Pansy Division record,” and we were like “We’re getting close I think. We’ve got some songs,” and he goes, “I really wanna know what it’s like for you guys to be your age and to be gay, and what does it look like? What does it look like to be you at this point?” and “Well, this is very good timing.” As Jello pointed out, we’ve got a history of records, so it’s like “Okay, what do we have to say now?” So a lot of songs came where we’ve said that before, we’ve done that dick-song before, we don’t need to do those anymore; we’ve got that. What’s gonna challenge us? What’s gonna be the next thing that’s like (inhales through teeth) hard to say? Like, “That’s a hard thing for us to put down; that’s gotta be potent if it’s hard to say.” One of the songs on this album – we came out a long time ago, but we haven’t really come out as atheists until now, so this is saying – because we’ve got a song called “Blame the Bible” which is, we blame the bible for a lot of the woes of the world.
(Joel enters to grab his guitar)
Going back to our first mission statement, which was basically saying “We wanna live in a world where there’s gay music, gay punk, gay something,” ‘cause there wasn’t anything before. Now we live in that world. Are we defunct now? If Sam Smith can have a number one album as an out artist, is our mission over?
Him and Frank Ocean, yeah?
Chris: Who? I don’t know that.
Luis: Yeah, Frank Ocean from, uh, Odd Future. He had, I think, a couple top ten singles as a gay R&B artist.
Chris: Okay. I had no idea. So, yeah, it’s about what more can we add to the snowball, if you will. If it’s going to keep growing is it gonna keep growing nicely? We still love doing it, and we know people are coming to the shows. We’re really happy about that, the fact that someone as old as our band is coming to see us. It’s remarkable; we would have never thought of this twenty-five years ago when we started the band. We had no idea. Honestly, the idea of a pop-star being openly gay from the get-go was also not on the table. Gay marriage was not on the table, none of it. Our little particular strain of mushroom popped out of the ground at the right time and here we are. I think it’s fabulous that we can still be doing this. And the fact that we have jobs says we are for sure not doing it for the money. We all have jobs; we all have other things to do; we’re only doing it when we want to and we love doing it. There’s no cleaner reason for being in a band.
Pansy Divisions’ latest release ‘Quite Contrary’ is out now. For full details visit the band online.
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