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With Jon Ginoli, talking friendly (I)

With Jon Ginoli, talking friendly (I)

La entrevista en español aquí: What You’re Missing.

At the corner of Mission and Capp in San Francisco there is tiny park which is not very much visited by the locals, who prefer to lie in the sun on the slopes of the nearby Dolores Park while overlooking one of the most magnificent views of the city. But it was on that secluded place where Jon Ginoli proposed to meet. I had asked him for an interview before I set off to the USA and had had no reply until I was a few days in San Francisco. I had given up thinking of the possibility to meet one of the frontmen I most adored. But things happen: I was at San Francisco Public Library, exploring the section dedicated to LGBT issues when I came across Jon Ginoli’s autobiography, which I started to read right then. After two hours I had to leave and as soon as I got to my apartment I got this e-mail from him apologizing for the late reply and kindly offering his time for an interview exclusively for Radio Rockin’, which eventually took place two days later. The right time for me to be able to finish his book.

jon-ginoli-my-life-in-pansy-division

And there I was, sitting on one of the only three benches of the smallest park in town, talking with the leader of Pansy Division, probably the gayest rock band in America when being a gay band meant having all the trouble ahead to become really big. We talked about music, activism, politics and life in general, and I am proud to share it with all of you.

Breaking the ice was easy as I knew he had toured Spain with Pansy Division. He wanted to know whereabouts in Spain I came from.

RadioRockin: Valencia

Jon Ginoli: When I’ve been to Spain I’ve only been in the north-east quarter, so it’s Bilbao, Barcelona, Valencia and Madrid.

RR: And Tomelloso!

JG: And Tomelloso! That was a great club in Tomelloso, run by sixties fanatics. Have you ever been there?

RR: No, but I know it’s a tiny place, certainly not the place where a rock band would go…

JG: I don’t know if that club is still there but on the TV screen in the club they had bootleg copies of 60s American TV shows, rock bands on TV shows, and it was amazing, it was an amazing club I’m glad we got to visit. But I have a lot of Spain I’ve never seen that I’d like to see someday. Luis, our drummer, toured with El Vez (the Mexican Elvis) and I know he got to go all around Spain, I know he went to La Coruña, San Sebastian… places I’d never gotten to.

RR: That is part of your touring history, but what about today? Is Pansy Division still at a standstill?

jon_ginoliJG: Pansy Division situation for the last five years is that we have not all been living in the same part of the country. Until five or six years ago Chris’d moved to LA but everybody else still lived in the Bay Area and Luis had wanted to live in New York for a long time so he moved to New York in 2008 and then Joel moved to Boston in 2009. So with two guys on the east coast and two on the west coast and none of us in the same city it becomes very difficult to function as a band, but part of that is that the band had really become a hobby, we weren’t making very much money at it, but that really wasn’t the point either. Everybody wanted to get on with their lives and have careers and it was fun to have Pansy Division keep that from happening for a while because we had been fairly successful. But nobody really wanted to live their life on the roads, sleeping on sofas using sleeping bags or sleeping on floors… On a long term basis, it was fun to do on a tour for a while, and we did it for five years when the band was our full-time occupation, but it’s pretty exhausting. I think I wanted to keep doing it more than the others did, but at a certain point you have to stop and say, ‘Why am I doing this if I am just doing this all the time?’ ‘Cos the crowds are small to medium size, they’re not big crowds, but you always hope that something big will happen… and that had already happened to us once, so what were the odds of that happening again? Pretty small. But we’ve continued to play, in the 2000s I think we did a tour in 2002, 2003, 2007 and the last tour we did was in 2009. Since then, because of work, we never really did a tour like that again, but we still play occasionally. Most of our shows tend to be in California now, because the two guys who live on the east coast are from California, so we can put shows together out here and then they can visit their families and friends but at some point we aim at playing on the east coast now in five years since that last tour. We could still do it again, there’s still interest in our band but it’s not enough interest to really try to make it more than a hobby. We keep doing it, but now we’re talking about making another record. The last time we did a record, we finished it in 2008 and came out in 2009. But I still write songs, I do solo performances sometimes, which I don’t like as well, I enjoy it but I much prefer having a full band making the big noise.

RR: Even though, the band managed to publish a great album in 2009, That’s So Gay, how was the process for it?

Thats_So_GayJG: We did it before people moved away. Right after we finished that album, Luis moved to New York a couple of weeks later… maybe he’d already moved, he moved in 2008 so we finished it out here while we were all living in one place. To be doing another record when we’re not all living in the same area is gonna take some planning, but now we’re talking about getting another album together, ‘cos I have songs. A lot of the songs that I perform when I play solo shows are songs that would be PD songs if the band ever had time to learn them, so I have a bunch of songs that are audience-tested and would be good for the band to learn. So I don’t know when that would be but I think some time in the next year where we’ll all probably end up having some kind of time when we get together and record. Last album was unusual in that it was recorded in three different time periods, like about six months apart. I think that might be what it takes to get the next one done; we’re not gonna go and sit and learn a dozen songs and record them all at once. But I think we did four songs, seven songs, and then four songs to all the recording we did last time. We’ll probably do something like that again. That was unusual because we had always been a touring band and before that album most of our songs had been played live plenty of times before we recorded them, so the last album was an experiment. Can we get away with doing them without having really road-tested them? We hadn’t played most of them live and it turned out great, we’re so happy with the way the last album turned out. However, it’s hard to sell records nowadays, there’s less impetus than ever to… we always did it for fun but now it’d be JUST for fun, there’s NO money in it. But it costs money to make one, to make a decent-sounding record. We have money saved, so we can do it when we’re ready to do it, it’s just a matter of time, but we know that when we put out a record we’ll be lucky to sell 1,000 copies. Even when we were a popular band, we never sold more than 25,000 copies, so we were never a huge band, but that’s still quite a few copies and it got us around the world.

RR: Talking about music and activism, it has always been difficult to draw a line between both aspects. Did any of these come before the other one?

JG: No, they were created and envisioned together. There are not very many of our songs that are political in the way that they will get outdated quickly. There are a few, I mean, when I look back at the 120 songs that we’ve done, I think that there’s about half a dozen of them that seem kind of off their moment now, and that moment is over. But now when I go back in my solo shows and pull out an old PD song I haven’t played in a long time there’ll be some reference in it that will show its age. For instance, in the song Sidewalk Sale, which I still like to play, there’s the line in it about “back and forth through the smokey space”.

Well there’s no such thing as the smokey gay bar in America anymore, we passed smoking laws in the end of the 90s and early 2000s, now every place has a smoking patio… so there’s little things like that that show their age but the politics were not set up to go out of date quickly, but if gay marriage really becomes legal everywhere in America like it has in Spain then perhaps our stuff may get dated more and seen more historical than does now

RR: Looking back in time, when you came from Peoria, Illinois… Do you still consider yourself a refugee in California?

JG: No, this is my home now, but I mean… one of the things that’s different now with the internet is that you don’t have to go to the big city anymore to discover some of these things. Big cities are different certainly, I’m glad I am not living where I used to live ‘cos it’s a smaller town but I think the internet makes the world smaller in that way, but at the same time San Francisco’s changed so much…. In the last two, three, four years San Francisco has become outrageously expensive, exponentially increasing rents, which are pretty much double what they were four years ago, maybe more than double, so any young gay person wanting to move to the big gay mecca of San Francisco can’t do it anymore unless they have a job where they’re making 100,000 dollars a year.

RR: That wasn’t the same when you came here?

PANSY DIVISIONJG: There was a period in the 70s and 80s where people were leaving big cities to move to the suburbs and in the 90s things started to change, but when I moved here in 1989 there were vacant apartments everywhere and they were cheap. I ran into someone I know last night who’d moved here in the mid 90s with a backpack and forty dollars and found a place to live and eventually got on his feet and did very well. You can’t do that now, it’s almost impossible. You have to have money, you can’t really find a place to live here. You can live in Oakland, across the bay, which is cheaper, but that’s getting more expensive too and that used to be a very poor city and parts of it are still very poor… Now those people have nowhere to go, they’re being forced out of Oakland. It’s just a problem of the society at large with all this disparity in income. San Francisco has always been a liberal city: voted against Reagan, voted against both Bushes, but those tax policies affected us as bad as anywhere, even though the economy is good, again, you have to be rich to live here. I’m lucky I have an apartment -I won’t go into the whole story of how you can not be rich and live here- but basically it involves having an apartment where the rent is controlled from years before. So San Francisco is a gay mecca, will continue, but it’s a different sort of city now. The younger people who would have come here in the past and changed the city in certain ways they can’t come here now. So the city is getting changed by wealthy people, some of whom are gay. Those are the new gay people who can move and live here, and some of them are my friends, but there’s no way people like me who could come here now. And that’s sad because San Francisco has a culture. I think there are three cities in America that are very different from the rest of the country: New York, New Orleans and San Francisco and in those cities there’s something unique that can’t be duplicated in other places and that is one of the tragedies of the way the city’s changed here. It’s still a great town, but you can’t join it now unless you’re already in.

(To be continued)

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Víctor WYM

diciembre 15th, 2014

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