Q&A: JD Samson of MEN on Playing Occupy Wall Street on May Day

JD Samson
JD Samson and MEN are helping to close down today's May Day events with a free concert at 7 p.m. at 2 Broadway in the Financial District. We sat down with Samson on a sun-dappled stoop recently to talk about the show, what Occupy Wall Street means to her, and her band's upcoming album.

Village Voice: How did you get involved with playing this show?

JD Samson: The first week of Occupy last year started the day we left on tour, and we were gone for six weeks, so we kind of watched from the road the rise of the whole community and the whole movement. And it was so incredible to go through each different town, and this geographical aspect of the movement was so awesome for us.

We felt really close to the movement, just because we kept seeing it from so many different perspectives—different cities had different reactions to it, and also different methodologies of leading the movement—that was really interesting to us. In some places all the anarchist queer kids hated occupy, and in some places they loved it. In Athens, Georgia there were some issues with people who were leading it. So it was really interesting to talk to people about the way they felt about it, and what it was doing to their town and in this way we felt really sad and guilty that we weren't in New York and we missed it and we wanted to be there so badly.

I remember the night of the huge action we were in Chicago, and during soundcheck we were just streaming the video footage and getting news that our friends were in jail and in this way—I almost never say this—but the internet somehow brought us closer to it and that was our link to it all during that tour. So when we came back, it was the week the police came to shut it down, and I woke up at 2 in the morning and saw all these tweets about it and I just went That was the first time that I had actually gone down there. I was out until 4:30 or something. It was crazy. I have protested in new York many times and that was something very new to me: it was so violent. There were times where we were waiting for lights to change, being completely law-abiding, and people were just torn down by the cops and got their faces busted open. I felt a lot of fear.

This is a weird quote to quote, but I was watching Damages, and there's this line where Glenn Close is like "You know how I pick a case? I have this twinge of anger inside of me and then I think 'I need to punish them.'" And I definitely felt a sense of that. We had been working on a new song, I'd written it that summer and I don't know why but the chorus was "Make him pay." The chorus was a lot about feminism to me when I wrote it. But at that moment everything sort of shifted for me and I rewrote the song to discuss the Occupy movement and as a protest song. So that's my relation to Occupy.

I've been asking some of the other artists playing this May Day show what it means to them to be political in their art.

I always think about my relationship to the music industry and to performance in general and really it all just sort of emerged out of my friendship group and my interest in activism, I think. So that happening, and getting enveloped into this world, I really thought the only thing I can do is use this pedestal or this microphone to be an activist, to make the world a better place. I'm not a politician, but I can be a philanthropist.

A philanthropist in the sense that you're giving your time and your performances?

Exactly. It's been really interesting for me, especially with MEN, because I have this freedom to do what I want with this project, and still, all I want to do is be a protest band. And if anything, just give a reality check to people about what's going on in the world, whether that's conceptually stated or pretty literal, I think that's what's important to me. What inspires me about being a performer is the ability to create this desire to move for change, and when I look out into the crowd and we're singing "Who Am I To Feel So Free," people just have this realization, and you watch their faces turn to smiles because they realize that as a team they can have power. That's the best gift that I could get. But also the best gift that I can give. I've been really lucky to have been in project that work like that.

I read the piece you wrote a while ago for the Huffington Post, and I wondered if you wanted to talk more about how that experience you were talking about of the precariousness of parts of your life, and how you map that onto more systemic issues.

Like I said before, it's that twinge of anger. Maybe I'm just used to feeling oppressed, but that's what I felt when I wrote that article. It was just a perfect time for me to talk about Occupy and be angry about it and create a conversation that people weren't necessarily having. I know there was a lot of backlash about it from some communities, people saying I'm complaining and I actually have a lot—honestly, I can understand that argument. Of course I choose to live in Williamsburg, of course I choose to be an artist. That argument is not only fair but necessary.

But it's been hard. I've been given a lot of great gifts from being in this industry, but it's also been really hard for me not only to pay my bills but to feel a sense of confidence about my career. And of course you play a show and people are freaking out and it's awesome, and you feel "This is all I've ever wanted. This is all I ever need." But the next moment you play a show and there are maybe three people there and they don't give a shit about what you're saying and when you play "Who Am I To Feel So Free" they're staring at you like they don't even know what you're talking about and you're thinking to yourself "Why am I doing this? Where do I exist in the world? Where should I be? What is important?" All those are normal questions—everyone second-guesses their careers sometimes.

One of the things I thought was interesting about that was deflating the idea that successful artists are secure in the system. You don't hear that so much.For a lot of artists presenting that success is part of being the success.

Sure, that. But I also wanted to address the idea that being freelance in the States right now, whether you're a construction worker or an artist, it's extremely challenging to exist, to have health insurance, to get an apartment. And that's really important in the discussion of rebuilding the economy, because that's a huge part of what people do in their 20s and 30s now.

I did receive thousands of responses though that were extremely positive from other artists and other freelance pieces. I've had so many responses from other musicians who live in New York. I got an email from a guy recently who said "I'm freaking out right now, I don't know what to do, I read your article, can we talk? I said, meet me at the coffee shop. And we just sat and talked for a couple hours. It felt like a therapy session, but I think it's good to talk to people about that stuff. I was just thinking "There should be a Musicians Anonymous." One thing I mentioned in the article that interesting, I thought, was all the other music that had been coming out last fall that referenced not having money. Das Racist, Spank Rock, Drums. Hesta Prynn from Northern State tweeted something a while ago: that being a musician right now is kind of like being a stock-broker during the depression.

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