Feature Cover Story

By Jeff Walsh, December 1995

Pansy Division

In February, queer punk fans will get another peek into Jon Ginoli's bedroom as Pansy Division releases its third album.

As was the case with their two previous albums, Ginoli is still single, still frustrated with the gay community and still writing great music for everyone else in the same situation.

Wish I'd Taken Pictures will be released in mid-February on Lookout Records. The seminal queer punk band will then tour the country in support of what Ginoli says is a "pivotal album" for the band.

"In terms of pure sonic approach, it's going to be a big jump," Ginoli said in an interview from the San Francisco recording studio where the album was being mixed in late November.

"Our goal for this record is to sell twice as many records as our last record," Ginoli said. "That would mean about 30,000 copies, and to get to that level takes a lot of work and a fair amount of luck.

"As far as the songs go [on the new album], they're a little darker, a little more somber," Ginoli said. "But there's still a certain amount of what you'd expect from us, but a few surprises, too. For some people, this will be exactly the record they're waiting for from us.

"A few things people listen to and go 'That's Pansy Division? Whoa!'" he said. "I think it's more in the direction of [the band's second album] Deflowered. The stuff on this album has a broader range of issues, and a lot more relationship-type songs and fewer songs that are happy-go-lucky gay."

One thing that will remain the same, though, is the band's frank lyrics and playful sexuality.

"There's a song called 'Horny in the Morning,' and the song that we're working on right now is 'Dick of Death,'" Ginoli said. "There are some funny songs on the album, but they're a little more wistful, more observational. Even the funnier songs, though they're celebratory, are also critical of certain situations and certain ways of acting, whereas the first album was this big belch of queer enthusiasm."

"Undressed" was the gastric eruption that started it all, with its full-frontal nude album cover and lyrics touching on penis angling, boyfriend wanting and Judy Garland dissing.

"The first album was done with the idea that it was probably the only album we were ever going to make and that not many people were going to hear it, so just let it go," Ginoli said. "But once we've done that, we didn't want to repeat ourselves and that's not the only thing we can do."

The band's sophomore effort, Deflowered, dove deeper into Ginoli's lyric pool, dredging up darker disdain for the plasticity of the gay community. But with songs like "Deep Water," about being a trapped gay youth waiting to escape, and the tragic "Denny," Pansy Division moved from being cutesy queer punks to the queer Fugazi. "Deflowered" also featured a recording of bassist Chris Freeman's first time -- as lead singer, that is, on "James Bondage." Freeman will also handle some lead vocals on the new album.

"Chris wrote some more stuff on the new album," Ginoli said. "He's more involved with helping me get the songs finished this time."

Ginoli said that although most of the band's early songs were his, Pansy Division is now -- by all definitions -- a band. "This is not just me and my backup band," he said. "Things evolve for the better."

Pansy Division gained more fans when they opened up for Green Day on its "Dookie" tour. "It did help a lot," Ginoli said. "But I think it hastened the process that was already happening. They definitely gave us a break, but I don't think that what we've achieved wouldn't have been achieved, it just would have taken longer."

Pansy Division will also try to penetrate virgin turf in 1996 when they attempt to get their first video on MTV.

"Unfortunately, it's for one of the tamer songs off the new album, so it's not too controversial," Ginoli said. "I think people would love to see a video for some of the more risqué songs, but that means they won't get played."

Despite Trent Reznor's homoerotic lyrics and videos, and Madonna's constantly pushing the envelope, smaller bands would get bounced off the channel for attempting the same things. Ginoli said.

"They're big stars, so they can get away with it," Ginoli said. The band did shoot a video for "Bill and Ted's Homosexual Adventure," which on a $20 budget pieced together band footage and porno films. It only played gay film festivals. They didn't bother sending MTV a copy.

The new video will be more professional, Ginoli said, as is the production on the new album. "Technically, it's just going to be a lot more clear, clean and professional sounding," he said. "We're in a better, bigger studio, and we brought in a professional mixer to remix our album. It's also the first time we've gone into the studio to record with a drummer who we've played all this stuff with live."

Pansy Division has gone through more drummers than Spinal Tap, although none died in an unexplained on-stage explosion. The lack of a steady drummer is one of the reasons Pansy Division waited two years to record a new album, Ginoli said, although fans were appeased last year with Pile Up, a collection of previously released singles and B-sides.

"Part of [the delay] was waiting until we had a permanent drummer that we could go in and do a better quality record with, rather than just doing the best we could at a given moment," Ginoli said. But the wait is over now that Dustin Donaldson is on drums.

Pansy Division has to keep challenging itself, because it is no longer the only queer kid on the block. "Bands like us and Tribe 8 opened the doors for a lot of bands," Ginoli said. "But once you have the door open, you don't know who's going to come through."

"[L.A. queercore band] Extra Fancy's an example of that," Ginoli said. "We were just listening to a song of theirs tonight. I think they're horrible. I hate Stone Temple Pilots and Smashing Pumpkins and that kind of stuff, and that's what they sound like -- just really bad, commercial hard rock. That's somebody's idea of what a gay band should be like.

"Team Dresch, Tribe 8 and Pansy Division are the bands that have gained a grassroots following just by being what they are," Ginoli said. "That's part of what bugs me about Extra Fancy. Their singer was in a failed heavy metal band and now that other queer bands are getting popular, they're just trying to capitalize on that."

Pansy Division also seems to have as many critics as fans. Most discussions about the band, online and off, touch on several points. Some people feel the band's hardcore sexual lyrics hurt the gay community. Ginoli disagrees.

"As far as us doing something that's negative for the gay community, I reject that totally," he said. "I think the people who have helped make progress over the years are the people who have pushed the envelope and tried to expand the range of what is permissible. I feel the approach we're taking is very moral. The best we can do is be honest and talk about what really concerns us, instead of trying to sugar-coat it so people will like us better. The people who don't like us are not going to like us regardless of what we do, so it's not an issue to try and water down our approach.

Other online discussion groups have commented on Ginoli's "whiny" voice, which some people say hold back the band. "I know that I don't have the best voice," Ginoli said, "but neither do a lot of my favorite singers. I've been compared to Lou Reed and Bob Mould. None of those people have great voices, but they're some of my favorite musicians. It's a matter of emotion. Rock and roll is about feeling over technical expertise, to me. I know that I've got limitations but I feel like everybody does to some extent, so how do you deal with them?"

Growing up in Peoria, Ill., Ginoli said he didn't have a problem dealing with his sexuality, and for a good reason. "I didn't think I was gay," he said. "I thought the guys I was attracted to were something that would go away once I got a girlfriend. But I never got a girlfriend -- funny, how that is."

Life in the Midwest was "a typical boring suburban experience," Ginoli said. "It was just alienating. I lived in a boring place, not the only boring place, but I thought everywhere was like where I was growing up."

But although he finally lives in San Francisco and is a burgeoning rock star, romance still eludes Ginoli.

"That is part of the mood on the new album. It's a little more frustrated," he said, letting out a sigh. "Our drummer is sitting here looking at me. Dustin knows what I'm being asked."

When it's mentioned his art may benefit from his lack of sex, he is quick to correct any misperceptions. "No, I get laid. You asked about romance," he said. "Romance and getting laid are different things. I try and put them together, but it doesn't seem to be happening."

But he acknowledges there is precedent for pop star abstinence and whining. "Morrissey's made a total career out of it," Ginoli said. "If that guy ever gets happy, his career will take a nose-dive.

"Maybe I will be miserable now, and everybody will appreciate me."

But many people already do appreciate Ginoli. And he doesn't shy away from the label of role model for queer youth.

"That's not what we set out to be, but if it turns out that we are that to some people, I'm fine with that," Ginoli said. "It's payback. I felt like I wanted to have that for me when I was that age. Now that I'm able to be that for someone else, I'm happy with that, because it's sincere for us. It's from our hearts that this is happening. We're a grassroots band. We'd be doing this music whether there were people buying our records or not. It's something we feel is important."

Pansy Division can be reached via e-mail at CF777@aol.com.

The author, Jeff Walsh, may be contacted at jeff@oasismag.com.

Previous Features..

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