"At a certain point, we stopped organizing our life around the band, but we didn't want to stop doing it," Pansy Division guitarist Jon Ginoli explains when asked why the gay punk pioneers' new album, Quite Contrary, is their first since 2009. "There's never been a year since 1991 where we haven't played at least three or four shows. But we realized, our 25th anniversary is coming up and, if we're ever going to get it together to do a record, let's do it then, so we got organized – and we did it."
Pansy Division was on Bay Area punk label Lookout! Records along with Green Day, Operation Ivy, Rancid, Alkaline Trio, Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, Screeching Weasel and the Donnas. After they toured with Green Day on their Dookie tour in 1994, the groundbreaking gay pop-punk group recruited young fans hungry for their sexy lyrics and who-gives-a-fuck attitude. Now with current lineup – which includes Chris Freeman, Luis Illades and Joel Reader (formerly of the Mr. T Experience and the Plus Ones) – the band's ready to find a new cohort to appreciate their unusual perspective on life. In advance of Quite Contrary, due in September, Ginoli spoke with Rolling Stone about what's changed over the last few decades, why they resurrected their classic cover of Prince's "Jack You Off," how the Pet Shop Boys' "It's a Sin" appeared on their latest record. Plus, they share their single, "Beat the Bible," and Ginoli explains why no gay or trans person should trust Trump.
So much has changed in the past 25 years, what do you think you guys are bringing to the music you're doing now?
It's amazing how much things have changed and progressed. On the other hand, you're about to watch the [Democratic ] political convention tonight and there was a rather ugly [Republican] one last week, so in some ways things are still the same. Last night, I played a solo show, this benefit for Orlando survivors in Berkeley, so you take two steps forward and then there's one step back. I think it still leaves a lot of territory to cover and sing about.
I loved that you guys were saying things that no one else was going to say. It felt subversive; it felt wild and crazy and sexy.
When we began, there were very few people who were out in music; there weren't really any in rock & roll. I think, even the ones that you think were out, they really weren't out yet. It's like an open secret: People who never admitted it, but everyone understood. And it's a pretty long list. I think we kind of forced the issue with that, but I think it would have happened anyway. The time had come, and it seemed like the time was right. Since then, a lot more musicians are out and this is great. But, one thing that we have is that we've always sung about being gay. We're not just gay and musicians. We have sung about being gay as a part of the topic within our songs. I think, over time, some of them are less physically gay than they were at first because it seemed like, when we had the chance that was really what we wanted to sing about and that was really unique. Now I think some of the songs are less gay specific but they certainly come out of our experience.
But you guys have grown up as well.
I think a perspective that we're going to talk about is what's going on with gay people. We're talking about what's going on with us in our lives and a part of it is being older and just having had the experience that we have. I think that as Pansy Division records go, there have been ones that lean more towards funny and outrageous and then there's ones that lean more towards introspection – and this one is more introspective. I just think given the territory, two of us are in our fifties and Joel is about to hit 40 next year. So, we've also looked at what we had, and we don't want to repeat ourselves. We had nine albums now, so for anybody, it's kind of hard to do that, but we tried to do something that would be true to what we did before and at the same time sound like there's been growth and experience.
Right, you were singing songs like "Beer Can Boy" and "Groovy Underwear" and "Dick of Death" and those aren't the sort of songs that you are singing now.But you aren't embarrassed of them it doesn't seem.
No, we still play some of them when we play live, but on the new record there were a few more raunchy ones that didn't make the cut and I think we decided, "Well, we've already done that." There was one I kind of wanted to have on there just so that we can still keep our toe in it, but we ended up not doing it… but that was OK.
What was that one about?
[Laughs] Since it's not on the record, I'm not going to say. But it was a dirtier song than the ones that are on the record. But we're guys singing songs about guys, and there's still songs about that. About halfway through our career, we made a record called Absurd Pop Song Romance, which really had so many humorous songs, and I think for a lot of our fans that's their favorite album and this is another one in that vein. So, there's fun songs and then there's serious songs, but there aren't and dick songs… Let's put it that way.
There are obviously some political songs. I was listening to "Blame the Bible." Can you tell me a little bit about where that sort of song comes from?
From our frustration at watching the political scene evolve. I think that was the last song written for the album because I think we actually wrote it before Trump announced he was running for president. But just looking at the circus that was coming up: On the right-wing side of the equation, it was just rather frightening, and it just seemed like the same old recycled BS. A lot of our songs are political with a small "p." We don't really talk about politics that much because I don't think they age particularly well, and we've tried to make music that will last. But it seems urgent to do that this year with "Blame the Bible," it's actually coming out as a single, so that’s something we're focusing on as something that is really of the moment.
It's interesting that you mention that song in reference to Trump because that's one of the things that I think a lot of gay and lesbian people are confused by as well… because he doesn't seem like he has any problems with LGBT, and the Republicans are actually talking about it, which was unheard of in 1991. How does that make you feel? Is it that people are co-opting it and using it for their own agenda?
It's lip service. I mean, look who Trump picked as his vice president. He picked [Pence] the guy who is in the state that led the way in trying to discriminate against gay people after all of these laws had been passed. [Pence] tried to roll them back in a sneaky way. So, I don't believe it.
Let's talk about what punk means to you. A lot of the times people think the music from the scene was angry, but you guys always had a really great sense of humor. Did that confuse people or how did you balance that?
I don't know if it confused people, but it did lead people to not take it seriously, and also, our relationship to punk is somewhat complicated because I really like that the version of punk that happened in the Seventies, and the people who were making punk then didn't grow up listening to punk, they grew up listening to other things. So when they came to punk, they brought this range of influences. Now, a lot of punk just seems really narrow to me. So, on this record, I think we have maybe a couple of songs that sound like punk songs, but it kind of goes from the starting point of, "Well, punk is a broader-sounding thing." We're trying not to adhere to any punk sound and when we first started coming out, we sort of ended up being not punk enough for a lot of people and too punk for other people. It's interesting to have a sort of gay audience that doesn't listen to punk very much and then a sort of punk or pop-punk audience for whom we aren't… "generic" enough, in my estimation. If we were a little more normal and got different guitars and different amps and sort of fit the uniform, then probably we would have been liked better by some people. But I always feel like we're kind of in-between and that's sort of where the album title comes from – which seems like we're "quite contrary" to wherever we try to fit, whether it's in the punk scene or indie scene or the gay scene. It's like this combination of things and it doesn't quite fit any particular niche where you can point at it and say, "It's that," but it has combinations of different things. I think we figured out pretty quickly that that's where we were happy to be.
It also implies the nursery rhyme line, "Mary, Mary quite contrary," which also sounds like something gay in its own right.
I know! It can totally be seen that way. Have you seen the album cover?
Yeah, the photo of two guys in pajamas?
Yes. So it's 2016, and in 1996 we released our fourth album, which was Wish I'd Taken Pictures, and it has those two models who are friends of ours who posed for the cover…
Oh, I just noticed it's the same pajama top from that photo!
Same pajamas, in the same room, with the same photographer 20 years later, and I thought that the guys who were on the cover 20 years ago were about our age then, and we thought we should have models on the cover who are about our age now. I think that makes a statement because it would be easy to sort of slap some pretty boys on there and – make it a Pansy Division album cover! But we thought, "No, let's see how they've aged…" I think they still look good and that's sort of our thing, too. It's 25 years later, and I think we're still sounding good so we thought we'd use that as a device to sort of comment on the sort of changes of time and how time has marched on, but we still have a certain approach that we are sticking with.
Were you still friends with them?
I'm Facebook friends with both of those guys, and I stayed in touch with them, though I hadn't stayed in touch with them much recently. It was an idea that I thought would make sense to people who knew Pansy Division and would recognize the album cover. But I still think it's a beautiful photo – with these guys that are slightly older than you would expect to have models be.
Your music also was so sex positive, but at the same time you were also dealing with trying to educate people. I read in your book that at one point you put a safe-sex condom PSA that Anthony Kiedis did on an album because it had been banned. It's hard for people who are young now to know that's what it was like back then, but it was certainly a political act as well.
Yeah, we just wanted it to be apart of what we did and we wanted to sing about sex because we thought that's what had been lacking – a frankness about what we liked to do. When we started out, I wanted our songs to capture the kinds of things that people talk about amongst themselves, this sort of vernacular that goes on when people get together and chat about things and a lot of songs have come out of things that I've overheard or conversations I've had.
But then you did it to young audiences when you toured with Green Day in 1994, so that must have been sort of bizarre?
I thought it was really important, especially after we realized that we were going to have a younger audience. Our anticipated audience was not teenagers, but being on Lookout [Records] and then opening for Green Day means we had tons of kids, way more kids… I mean, if I had thought that I was going to be having so many 15 year olds listen to this, I might not have used so many four-letter words. Or maybe I would've used more! But it felt like a responsibility. I don't like preachy music, so I didn't want to be preachy, but I sort of wanted to embed these songs with this undercurrent about sex positivity and safe sex and to make sure that if you got one of our records – back when you had to get a record, before you could grab it off of the Internet.
Now, it's really not necessary to do that I think, and that's one way that times have changed. I think if the information is out there, whether people pay attention to it or not is another thing. But I felt the need, at a certain point, realizing a younger audience needed to hear those facts, because they were being censored from hearing them in school. People would write to us after the Green Day tour. We had thousands of letters from people writing us saying, "Yeah, in my high school in Virginia, this is happening," and "My high school in Texas, we can't do this, we can't talk about this." Or something like, "This kid got sent to detention because he was saying something pro-gay in front of his sex ed teacher," so it was interesting for a couple of years to sort of have our finger on that pulse and realize that we were filling in the gap that school wasn't. And we were doing so in a way that was more frank than school would be anyway and I think it was effective. A lot of those kids were straight, a majority of them, so it was something that kind of filtered down both ways. The sex information, but also the idea that, "Wow, I saw this gay rock band and they were pretty cool, look what they're talking about!” So it had way more impact than I ever would've imagined when we were starting out.
So I know you guys always enjoyed a fun cover, and I was remembering Prince's "Jack You Off," in particular. Since he died this year, would there be any chance that you would revive that or is that something in the past?
We had a couple of shows in May, and he died in April, so we resurrected it and I don't think we played it since 1998. When Absurd Pop Song Romance came out, that was sort of the shift; it made a lot of the back catalogue that we had been playing, especially the covers, go away. One of the things that I wanted to do when we did some of the covers in the early days was sort of expose the hidden gay history of rock & roll, that there were all of these gay rock songs, some of which were not done by gay people but had a certain angle or message to them. And our doing those covers was to try to expose that. Doing the Pet Shop Boys is really a kind of a different thing.
Tell me why you have a cover of "It's a Sin" on this album.
First, it's not something that you would expect us to do. The thing about the Pet Shop Boys is Chris was a big fan, but the idea came from our straight guitar player Joel. I like the songs, but I don't really like electronic music that much, so for us, doing a rock version of it just makes it more interesting to me. But Joel's been in a band for 12 years, and he wanted to write something for our last album. He had one song to sing, and we were like, "Well there should be something else for Joel to sing," so that was his idea. We played it live a few times, and people just loved it. So we thought, "All right we really aren't into doing covers that much anymore…" but we thought that would be an interesting way to go.
You mentioned doing the benefit for Orlando shooting victims, and I wondered what it means to perform and be in these kinds of spaces where you hope that people are going to be safe and are going to have a great time, but you also don't know what would happen. You've been in intense situations where you've kind of had wild crowds and that kind of stuff. Does it change the way you interact with people in an audience or in a concert environment now?
I mean, I think we're more on guard. I think one of the big surprises when we first started going out on the road, we thought that we might just be attacked in every city. And the fact that we weren't, and that only happened a handful of times. You know, out of almost 1,000 shows, it really signaled to us that the country was changing. I mean, if we were gonna go opening for Florida Georgia Line, I don't think we'd end up having such a good reception, but we're not doing that. I think our attitude back then was that we needed to be brave, and we were just going to go out there and do what we wanted to do, and there was a lot of defiance about it. And that's how I feel since Orlando. We are not going to be stopped from doing our thing.
And I hope other people feel the same way, because as someone pointed out to me, for younger people who are maybe in their early twenties or younger, they've never seen anything like this. They don't remember the battle days where it was much more dangerous to be out. So I think it's scared some people back, and that's understandable, but…our message is to, uh, to be brave, to go out there, and we've always thought that the best defense is a good offense. So we're going out there and putting our faces out there in public and encouraging other people to do the same.