Hirsute is her suit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2012, 12:00am


J.D. Samson cuts an enigmatic figure. Her cropped locks and delicate features give her a model-esque androgyny, yet she wears more moustache than the average Hong Kong man. And while she makes head-bopping electro-pop music, its politically rousing lyrics encourage discourse through dance.

Samson is best known as a member of the electro-clash outfit Le Tigre, whose feminist, pro-LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) lyrics made them a beacon of the riot grrl movement a decade ago. She's also frontwoman of dance-pop group MEN, a band and performance collective which collaborates with writers, artists and musicians from Brooklyn's art-punk scene. The music is sleek, electronic pop underpinned by disco beats and rippling synths, while lyrics dance around topical issues of liberty and what Samson calls 'identity and gender politics'.

They may make candy electro music, but MEN come with an unexpectedly radical manifesto: pro-feminism, pro-identity, pro-being as weird (or not) as you want to be.

'I see what we make as a reality check - and sometimes it's a good reality to understand,' Samson says. 'As a project, we began with a political, conceptual idea of having a place for people to ... discuss and analyse and be intellectual through dance music. As time has gone on we've become more like a real band because touring has forced me to leave some of the visual elements at home - [for example] we've played in museums where we've had the budget to create a set and be able to bring in dancers and instrumentalists.

'Ever since Le Tigre, we've known what we want to get across in dance. We're interested in particular conversations about gender and about our bodies. We're really interested in how we are queer, and what makes us queer. We want to get this across through dance music, within a community who feel safe in being vulnerable with each other.'

It's therefore appropriate that MEN's full-length debut is titled Talk About Body. Released last February on Los Angeles indie label IAMSound, the record is dance music with a mission and deals with topics such as getting too old for clubbing, how others see your body, gay couples adopting, and governments profiting from war.

Talk About Body could easily be the semester syllabus for a core subject in the liberal arts enclave where Samson studied film. She landed at New York's Sarah Lawrence College at 18, where the young proto-activist put on punk shows, entered the feminist art scene and met her future Le Tigre colleagues. Samson joined the band in 2000 already sporting her moustache and, thanks to that casual dash of keratin, rose as an icon of the transsexual revolution around 2003.

'I think my body came into public awareness at a very specific time and people started using me as some kind of mascot,' she says. 'People were very interested in talking about female masculinity, and the trans-alternative lifestyle was coming to the forefront of queer politics. I became part of the queer political revolution and it was great to be known as someone changing the way people think about gender.'

Samson's masculinity is often played up in photoshoots, but she insists her moustache is just part of her style. 'I consider myself an ally of the trans community but I don't consider myself a man,' she says. 'When I was a kid, my mum was like, 'You have to wax your moustache'. It was just something inside me - I didn't have a reason to get rid of it. [Now] it's given a lot of people the strength not to be ashamed to have facial hair.'

This would seem provocative in comparatively conservative Hong Kong, where adherence to tradition means many LGBT individuals don't identify themselves as such.

Still, Samson maintains that MEN are not trying to change anybody's point of view. 'I'm a people pleaser. It's important for us to maintain a sense of reality because the music industry is in a strange place right now. If other people want to get on board, that's awesome. But I don't like to see myself being didactic.

'Le Tigre were coming out of the riot grrl movement - we were angry and wanted to bring some joy to the feminist response. Now we are in a time of depression, so it's been an interesting juxtaposition to bring introspection to the project, bring it to dance music.'

Originally conceived as a DJ project, MEN have toured their live show in Europe, the US, Australia and now Asia, performing as headliners as well as supporting Brazilian new rave band CSS, plus Le Tigre-esque electro-rock acts the Gossip and Peaches.

The MEN project has achieved more success than its founders expected, but Samson says she has recently become confused about what success means. 'I have respect from the public and the fans, and I've been true to myself. I'm not that interested in making a lot of money - I'm just interested in being able to support myself, to have health insurance,' she says.

Still, Samson recently penned a column for Huffington Post describing her feelings of financial insecurity, being '33 and I don't know how to make coffee'. She adds: 'I don't feel I've gone wrong. It's just complicated to be 33 and understand there's a time at which you need to change if you want to save money or have a family. I guess I'm at a point where selling yourself is really embarrassing. How many times can I put on my Facebook page, 'I'm playing a show, can you please come to it?'

'At the same time, I really truly believe if you make good art, things will come to you.'

But in a musical age where paying HK$8 for a song is too much for many, good art is a tough sell. 'I would say my facial hair has been a huge part of my success,' she says. 'Which is very strange.'

Talking about her body, it seems, has never been so appropriate.

MEN Live in Hong Kong, Mar 8, 8pm, Grappa's Cellar, B/F Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, HK$260 (advance), HK$300. Inquiries: 2521 2322