The Act of Art: An Interview with Venus DeMars


Venus DeMars by Neza S.G.
Venus DeMars by Neza S.G.

great weather for MEDIA is thrilled to present a very special musical event on Sunday May 31st 2015, 6:30 to 8:00 pm, at New York City’s Parkside Lounge featuring VENUS DE MARS.

Celebrate the release of Venus' debut solo-acoustic album, Flesh and Wire, plus very special guests Janna Pelle and Corrina Bain.

In a world where music is homogenized and controversy is manufactured, Venus DeMars has few peers. Musically and visually,she is a true original, channeling the vocal gender-bending of Bowie and the showmanship of KISS, all wrapped up in a glamorous, uncompromising package. - Niki D’Adrea, SPIN Magazine


Peter Darrell: Venus, let me start by saying how thrilled great weather for MEDIA is to be hosting the Sunday May 31st 2015 show at the Parkside Lounge where you will be performing tracks from Flesh and Wire, your stunning new solo album. Flesh and Wire sees you take a new direction. Stripped of the full band you normally play with (All the Pretty Horses), this is largely just you and acoustic guitar. What caused you to take this approach and why now?

Venus de Mars: Thank you Pete! Yeah, I kinda left my band behind with this album! I've done that before with my Trashed and Brokenhearted solo release, and a bit with 10 Bones. I gave myself permission to record the songs first before bringing the songs on the road. I worked with my producer Barb Morrison on both of them, then I pretty much caught the band up to speed with re-worked live arrangements. A bit backwards from the way bands often approach albums, but "Venus de Mars & All The Pretty Horses" ceased to be a usual band after my initial drummer Bill Bailey left. I took hold of the steering wheel after that and drove the band as a solo project with the 'Horses being my back-up band. And I think maybe because of that, I've had lots of past band mates and line-ups during ATPH's twenty year trajectory.

For Flesh and Wire though, yeah, I did this one in a very spare way. It's my voice and my acoustic guitar. And about half of the album leaves it as such. For the other half, Barb and I invited in a few guest musicians in. The cut "Take My Shoulder," being the one we invited Laura Jane Grace of Against Me! to contribute, not knowing if she would, and She did!

But yes, we kept my spare vocals and acoustic guitar front and center through out the whole album.

So why? And why now? OK, well…So a number of years ago, Jim Walsh - the Minneapolis rock journalist and songwriter - saw me at a gas station and he invited me to join him for one of the events he puts on which he calls a Hootenanny. He says, "Leave your band behind," and tells me to just bring my acoustic  and about five or six songs and show up at the venue: the basement of a coffee shop. So I'm scared to death about this, but I agree and do it anyway, and I discover a whole other kind of musical intensity. I was completely caught, and I've been doing side acoustic gigs ever since. But all I ever had to sell after a solo performance was my full band albums, and the acoustic audiences really wanted something like they'd just heard. So this year, I decided it was time to record an album which reflected my acoustic work. I presented the idea to Barb and we began to discuss it. Eventually I secured Sacred Heart Studio  in Duluth, MN, as the place to record it. Barb came to Minneapolis, and we let it unfold from there.

Peter Darrell: As well as the new compositions, I love the mixture of re-worked existing songs and some memorable covers. Can you tell us a little about the selection of titles from your considerable back catalog and how you settled on the covers to include?

Venus de Mars: Yes of course! It was kind of organic how that all came about. Basically I'd already mined my back catalog for songs to perform at my side acoustic performances already, so I had a fair selection of them. For the recording weekend, I'd chosen to include a live performance the evening before as part of the whole recording package. Sacred Heart allows for both performances as well as formal studio recordings, both of which make use of the old church's natural and immense reverb. I thought why not do both? So when Barb and I arrived in Duluth, I just set out a list of my songs, and chose at random which ones to play during the performance. Just performed songs as I was inspired. I didn't have a set list. Barb sat in the pews and took notes. The next day She says we should just go with the songs I choose for the performance. And so we do, including two new songs, "Gin and Bitters" and "Was it Me?"

It all just fell together.

Peter Darrell: We first met you last December when you co-featured with your wife, Lynette Reini-Grandell, at our regular Spoken Word Sunday series at the Parkside Lounge. Among others, you performed one of the tracks on the current album, “Mercy,” which just blew everybody in the room away. We have been privileged to work with many fantastic performers over the years, but this is the only time I have ever seen a standing ovation – it was a special moment. “Mercy” happens to be a personal favorite of mine, but which tracks are you proudest of?

Venus de Mars: Well that's one of them. And others come to mind too, but you know, I just listened to the album again a few days ago, and I got sucked into every song. I'd forgotten the emotions Barb and I were able to capture  during the recording process, and I was reminded of all that when I re-listened to the album. Every song has something I love. I guess that's why I keep performing them all. I get caught up in them. I get caught up in why I wrote the songs in the first place. They all come from personal experiences. And when I sing them I'm pulled back to those emotional places. I suppose eventually that might stop and I'll get tired of them, but it hasn't happened yet. So I can't honestly give you favorites. But as a whole, I'm just so happy to have this really special album as part of my catalogue now.

Peter Darrell: Talking to you and Lynette after that show, it was very interesting - and inspiring - to hear about your experiences as a transgender artist, and the challenges and prejudices you have faced both professionally and personally, as an individual and as a couple. For our readers that are perhaps earlier in their own journey, do you see yourself as role model and what advice could you offer? 

Venus de Mars: You know it's funny. All I've done is just try and get through things. Get through life. After such a struggle growing up, I finally embraced my own trans-self, then I bring that out to everyone else, and from there it's been both a struggle and a gift. The struggle always changes as progress changes.

I suppose I have become a role model of sorts...(??) But honestly, I have trouble getting my head around that. I still feel so "in-the-dark" over stuff and I still struggle. But people have told me that before, so well, I'll do my best!

I guess, for advice...Hmmm. OK. Remember, life isn't fair. And it will never be. That's kind of the point of life. So, as a performer, in both performance art as well as in the musical arts, I've found the experiences of unfairness and hurt, the struggles and despair. These are our gifts. This is where our insights come from. This is where we become tempered. How we learn. As an artist, I've been able to use it as a pallet to draw my work from. And anyone can do this even if you don't see yourself as an artist. Living our lives and interacting with each other is an act of art in itself. We have the chance to make a difference every day. Our struggles give us the tools to make that difference. My advice I guess, is value the struggle.

Peter Darrell: You and the band were just recently on tour with Against Me! – those must have been some special gigs. I saw Against Me! for the first time in June 2012 when they supported The Cult at Terminal 5 in NYC. They tore the roof off! How was touring with them and how did it come about?

Venus de Mars: Second question first. It was by e-mail invite a month before we joined up with them. Out of the blue! I was just checking my e-mail one morning on our front porch when I came across a curious message sent to me by their manager and in it, he was telling me that Laura and the band had talked about who they should bring in as their opener for the North-West leg of their 2014 US tour. And Laura had suggested me, and the band liked the idea, and so their manager sent the e-mail. Crazy! I about fell off my chair. A month before that, I'd met Laura in the Load-in parking lot part of First Ave. She was gathering Trans and gender-variant folks for her AOL gender documentary and invited me to be one of her interviewees. Both me and Lynette actually. By the way, our interviews didn't make it into the final cut... but still, I was able to meet her and talk to her, and found out She knew Barb. And I guess She'd already known about my musical work, so I'm thinking I was just on her mind when they got the tour opening. Which is way cool!

Yes, touring with them was fun. The whole band is truly genuine. I was hoping they'd be. The shows were all-ages shows, so all the gigs were fairly early in the evenings, and at pretty large venues. And every night on the tour - except for two, I think, where we had too far to travel and needed a free night to make it to the next city. The hardest part was driving my van between shows. Sometimes up to eight hours per drive, and because they were all early shows, load-in and sound checks were at 5 pm. So we'd need to make it to our Motel 6 reservation, (yes, we booked every night at a Motel 6,) by 4 pm, and then get ready and into costume, and run to load-in and sound check. And even though the gigs were early, we still didn't seem to get out of the clubs or finish till 1 or 2 am, so it was a race against sleep and time every day after a gig trying to make it to hotel check-in and then scrambling to sound check.

BUT It was nice to get a taste of the aboveground music biz... I've been an underground rocker for my whole career... you know, sleeping on floors, small clubs, fighting to win over an audience who couldn't get their head around my trans, etc. etc... Kind of a never-ending battle. But with Against Me! and Laura, I didn't have to worry about that. The audiences were large, and they were there BECAUSE of Trans-issues and music. It was a mix of Laura's older fans who stuck with her through her coming out and transition, and the new young fan-base of trans-kids. And often those trans-kids parents! It was so incredible seeing the mix of them all supporting each other and also all of us onstage. Such a different world than I'd been used to dealing with during all my previous touring years as an underground indy-artist. I didn't even mind the driving so much, just because it was so lovely to know the show was going to be adventurous and wonderful that day no matter what. Oh sure, there were a couple of times we dealt with crazy-bad stage mixes, and at a few of the gigs, only a handful of people showed up for the openers, so those gigs were tougher, but every night as a whole was always a blast...Weeellll, ok, so then there was the touring through Mormon-country gigs where the clubs were not happy with my pasties and g-string. Oh man! Ha! So yeah, I could go way into more stories here, but I'll leave that for another time. Maybe a memoir... All in all, I was really thrilled to have been invited to join Laura and Against Me! I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

Peter Darrell: Clearly the Parkside Lounge is a little more "intimate" than the venues you were just touring, but I’m guessing playing solo can be just as intimidating. How would you contrast the experiences and does it change your preparation?

Venus de Mars: I'd like to say something specific about the Parkside which is coincidental, but first I'll just answer your question. So the prep for the tour I did with Against Me! was basically preparing a set which we stuck to for every gig. We got tight of course playing the same songs and order each night. Perhaps sorting out different approaches from one song to another, changing how we looked on occasions. (I, for example, wear fishnets, g-string, stiletto thigh-high boots, a corset, and electrical tape pastie. I brought two corsets. I'd sometimes change which one I'd wear.) I might vary what I'd say at each venue, or between songs depending on the audience, or the attitude I picked up from the town we were in, but the actual prep was done a month before we even started the tour, so that didn't change all too much. Solo gigs however are much more flexible. What I'll wear is still unknown for me... I'm all over the place with that still...I still don't quite know what my standard solo-gear outfit is! I've done the fishnets and corset, but also jeans and short-crop top with tennies.

I honestly just don't quite know how I should look yet for the solo acoustic stuff. And this also brings us into where the Trans-community IS right now. How we're seen by the greater community. It used to be that I HAD to go out of my way to make damn sure the audience knew I was 24-7 trans and not just putting on a drag act. Remember I've been out and onstage for twenty years. People just assumed since my singing voice is still fairly low that I was just "costuming-up" for shtick-effect. And I always got shit before we kicked into our set. Lots of threats and ridicule almost every new show. Even a couple of death threats. So how I looked, how I presented myself as a M to F trans-person, made a huge difference. Did I look like a victim or a predator onstage? No! Better not! It was crazy. I chose the fetish-dom look years ago because I wanted to project strength. My full electric work is quite aggressive musically, sometimes I slip it into a ballad or quiet stuff, but then kick it all back into high aggressive gear. So NOW what do I do with the solo stuff!? It's just me up there. Can I let down my guard? I don't know. I think so... you know, I'm still trying all that on. My songs though, for this new album are unguarded. They're honest. I do let my guard down as a songwriter with this collection. And I want to deliver live what I've created in that same way. So Yes. I DO let my guard down when I perform an acoustic set. I still have the same passion as I do when I perform a full electric set with a full band behind me. I still play with intensity, but it's different. It's an intimate intensity. It's a raw, spare intensity. Totally different but just as powerful as my full electric, I think. At least that's the way it feels when I'm onstage.

And yes, it's totally scary. I often don't even have a strict set-list, just a list of songs, and I just choose on inspiration which song to do next. If something strikes me, I'll say something about it, or maybe I won't. I leave much more up to chance when I perform solo-acoustically. It makes every performance unique. Every performance is different. And I'm really liking that. The intimate stage at the Parkside is perfect for this. We're all together there. It's not so "Stage-Audience" like when I was touring with Laura. This is just us. All of us. Whoever comes to see me in the audience, and then me. We'll be just a few feet away from each other. I really love that.

Peter Darrell: Talking of the Parkside Lounge, I understand you have a connection with the venue that pre-dates the first time we saw you there in December?

Venus de Mars: A-ha! I totally forgot to go into all that in the last answer! YES! So back in the late 90s and early 2000s I toured out to NY tons of times with the 'Horses, (my band.) One of our always gigs was a night at the old Meow Mix. That's in fact, where I met Barb Morison my producer. She was working the bar that very first gig we did there. She's got a better version than me about our first meeting, but it involved a land-line phone call to the club, and the use of my birth name. Anyway… Yes, so we usually performed on a Sunday night at the Meow Mix, and a Saturday or Friday night at CBGB's. I eventually became known to the local NY trans-scene after a few tours and I began to meet a number of individuals. One was another trans-rock performer Lisa Jackson, who had a band called Girl Friday. Lisa and I got to be friends and She's the one who clued me into a Sunday trans-event called "Cheezwiz" hosted my "Sweetie" and held at, yes, the Parkside Lounge! Lisa brought me over a few times after we'd performed Meow Mix since it was just a few blocks away, and honestly, I was blown away by everything about it.

You have to remember, I'm based in Minneapolis. We could not get a gig locally for the life of us at first there because of my being out as Trans. We just had a few brave venues who'd book us, and those few clubs frankly saved our butts. And press? Well back then it was ridicule-press at best. Back then I remember if there was ever anything which involved someone who was Trans, it would end up in the "News of the Weird" section. Everything. Even hard news stuff which would end up on front pages now would be sequestered to "News of the Weird" simply because of the gender variant aspect. So back then the rock/music press didn't know what to do with me. It wasn't really their fault, it was just the times. I took advantage of that, of course. I caused a lot of talk and curiosity. It would inspire a story. The danger of it all I suppose. Eventually it made for good press, but at first it was just all about how bizarre I was, or we were when I brought in other trans-people as part of my band. The reviews didn't usually go into the music aspect or songwriting at all, just how we all looked onstage. You know, you work with what you've got, so I admit I ran with it in order to keep us in the press. Despite all the attitude from the press back then, the audiences loved us, but it all takes so much time, and if the venues are afraid of you, and if the press doesn't know what to do with you, it's going to be hard to grow that audience.

Minneapolis is nothing like that now. These were early days. I've enjoyed so much support in Minneapolis now from clubs and press. Really. Across the board. And so have many others. But back then? well... to but it simply, it was tough. So I thought to myself back when we couldn't catch any ground, why not just head out of town. Why not go to NY? NY will know what to do with us, and so we were off, AND I was right. And then the press back home caught on. Saw how we were doing in New York, and finally knew what to do with us. More clubs calmed down, and began to let us perform. Not all, but most the clubs calmed down. And those nights in New York at Cheezwiz? Lisa introduced me to older drag-performers who had been front and center during the Stonewall riots! Can you imagine? I only knew of Stonewall from word-of-mouth and underground Gay publications... There wasn't any LGBT back then. There was hardly the out recognition of "L" and "G"... Trans? Bi? Nope. I was actually still officially classified as having a mental illness when I dealt with any medical stuff. On my medical records. It was such a different world. So I was floored meeting such iconic Trans ground-breakers in person! What was the world THEY lived through? I was SO humbled.

I know people there in NY might think I'm crazy for talking about it like this... but I came from the middle of the US. I knew there were other Trans-rockers out there, but only really in an abstract sense. I'd never met any of them. This was in the very early days of the internet too. I truly felt like we were about the only Trans-rockers out there, and seemingly having to fight through every road trip, every tour, every new stage... it was exhausting really. Being part of the NY Drag and Trans-rock scene back then and meeting these truly iconic people was simply stunning to me.

So now to be performing on that same stage and on a Sunday night no less! It's just an incredible thing.

Peter Darrell: You have been visiting New York for many years. What other venues have you played? Any special memories, good or bad?

Venus DeMars: Yes yes, tons and tons, and both good and bad. CBGB's of course, both the CB's proper and CB's Gallery. The Now Bar, and underground Trans-bar...or back then Tranny-bar…on a night run by Gloria Wholesome and her partner Gil. They let me do these tiny live cameo performances in a cleared area on the floor to help us promote the other gigs we'd lined up. No sense of competition. It seemed everyone knew we were only there for that weekend, and we performed sometimes twice a night and all the promoters helped us do it. I don't know. I think maybe they were just kind of stunned we'd come from Minneapolis maybe? Anyway, everyone was so helpful. Meow Mix of course. Limelight and the Giger Room. Pyramid Club, Arlene's Grocery. There was an old club called the Spiral. Oh, Click and Drag at Mother's, then TRUE later. Um... a few of Formika's nights (Mistress Formika-Michael,) at Manitoba's, Don Hill's and Squeeze Box, and Fraggle Rock.

There were a bunch of regular underground parties in clubs and warehouses we'd perform at too... Just everywhere and anything we could. I remember losing my skirt and bra somewhere and all of us jumping into a cab with me about naked and the cabbie stunned by my low voice.  He just sat there not knowing what to do, but there were too many of us in the cab, so he eventually had to drive us. I remember getting stranded outside CBGB's with an absolute pile of instruments, a drum kit, and two full stacks and amps. Absolutely NO cab would pick us up... we split the pile into four smaller piles, and spaced ourselves into four small groups, but still, half of us ended up having to hand carry all the equipment down 3rd to 25th where our hotel was, Me included, and me still in my stiletto thigh-high boots and corset. (I think maybe that's the time I crushed my right big toe joint. Still goes numb on me now and then.)

Hmm, I remember my bass player Eden destroying her bass onstage at the end of one of our Homocorps sets at CB's. Absolutely destroyed it. I believe there's someone out there in New York who has the smashed up body, or was it the broken neck? I know my old dancer Shannon Blowtorch still has the other half of Eden's bass here in Minneapolis. She grabbed it off stage after Eden left everything in a heap. I could write a book! Well, come to think of it, I AM writing a book! Yes, I'm writing a memoir actually about a lot of things. My rock-trans-punk-marriage-craziness from back then. If there's time, maybe I'll read a short selection of it onstage during my set? Your call of course. It's still a good while before it's done but I've finally secured an editor, so there is a light shining somewhere which says it'll get finished.

Peter Darrell: There is of course a lot more to Venus DeMars than this latest great solo album, and your work over the years with All the Pretty Horses. Can you tell us a little more about your art work and how you would describe yourself?

Venus de Mars: I was just talking to a friend who was wondering how I could jump around to so many mediums: music, visual art, performance art, filmmaking, writing... I was trying to explaining how I saw everything like a painting. The difference was the element of time. So in filmmaking, the element of time is obvious but it's static as in it repeats. But it has a time element as a part of the emotional image-core of the piece - which is where my painting idea comes in. Onstage, as a musician or in performance art, the element of time is there too of course, but it's flexible. More unpredictable, still at the emotional core. In paintings the element of time is suggested by the painted image's subject. In installations the element of time is within the person walking through and experiencing the installation. Its duration is up to them, but its design is mine. And now, writing - a fairly new medium for me - also has the time element at its emotional core as well.

This is a long way around to answering your question. I've done so much. But I started as a painter so everything kinda leads back to that in my head.

The main reason I'm in New York this trip is to restore an installation. One I've had up at the art-hotel The Carlton Arms since 2002. It's known to the staff there as the "All The Pretty Horses Room," or the "Venus De Mars room." It's mostly a blue starry sky with three life-sized, blue trans-figures on the walls. One with butterfly wings, one with flaming feather wings and one in the embrace of an octopus. The images come from my dreams, or an abstraction of actual experience. I see the blue trans-figures as kind of metaphorical self portraits. Lynette, my spouse, is also one of the artists of that installation in that she painted some of her poetry on the walls as part of it. Every square inch of the room is the work, is the art. As is the whole hotel itself if you've never been. Every square inch of that hotel on 25th and 3rd is covered with the art of invited artists from all over the world. It's an incredible hotel and concept, and it's where me, and the band and Lynette have always stayed whenever we're in New York.

So it's hard to tackle that question. Who I am kind of depends on who you talk to. For some, I'm an installation and visual artist. For others, I'm a performance artist, or a filmmaker, or a punk-glam trans-rocker. I guess it's also the reason why I decided to write a memoir and keep a blog. I can't really explain who I am easily, so I just end up telling people these stories, these small life experiences I've had instead.

PD: I understand you are in New York for a week or so, and I know there are a number of other events you are undertaking that folk can enjoy. Please promote!

Venus de Mars: I am. For two weeks! Well, as I mentioned above, I'm mostly restoring my installation at The Carlton Arms. When it's finished, Lynette and I will host a small open-house opening to view the finished work. That'll probably happen June 4, 5, or maybe the 6th depending on how long the restoration takes. And I'll be performing another very tiny event in a friend's art studio. Kind of a variation on a living-room concert. This one will also involve an art talk, and I'll bring my drawings and have them on display for that single night. That one is a tiny event though, so very limited seating, or I suppose maybe standing room. I might get Lynette reading a bit of her poetry too at whichever event.

And on Wednesday May 27th I'm going to be on the Rew Starr's show, ReW & WhO?, with great weather editor, Jane Ormerod. You can watch live from 4:00 pm, and it will also be archived. Or be right there in the audience at Otto's Shrunken Head. There'll be a fun interview and a song.

And finally, I'm working on a film documentary about the trans-community seen through my eyes as a trans-filmmaker. That's not an "event" but it will turn into something at some point. I'll be interviewing some trans-community folks out there in New York while I'm in town. Having lived my own journey over this incredible transition of society shunning us, to societal-curiosity, then turned to societal-support, well it's incredible. We're experiencing all this as a community. Perhaps the dark-days are beginning to lift? Some of the New York trans-people I'll be interviewing have also lived that whole time trajectory. Being out as a trans-person during the darkness, and now seeing such incredible changes happening all around us. The documentary will be exploring all this. I hope to have that done at some point this winter.

For promotion all this... well, I'm thinking the best way maybe to know the details on what I'm up to and how to jump on stuff while I'm in New York, is to follow me on either twitter @VenusDeMars. OR facebook... Or both! I'll be making noise about everything there, and posting details as they unfold. I'll probably also have some more specifics at our May 31st performance at the Parkside, so showing up then might be a good idea too? Maybe?? Hint-hint.

Peter Darrell: Finally, what’s next for Venus De Mars? For all the fans of Venus De Mars and All the Pretty Horses out there, can they expect new material and shows in the future, or do you think you will continue with the solo project?

Venus de Mars: Now that I have Flesh and Wire complete, I think the solo-acoustic element is going to be a constant part of my musical stage work. However, I am always drawn to my full-electric work too. I love the big show and glam of all that. I'm hoping to pull some band mates together, maybe draw a bit from my past band line-ups, and at some point after the fall, I'm hoping to record another full band album along the lines of my old album "CREATURE." At least, that's the idea which been rising to the top of my brain as of late. That, and if I'm lucky, I may also have some sort of memoir well on its way by then too...

All photos of Venus by Neza S.G.


Listen to Flesh and Wire