Sunday, 26 October 2014

Interview with Venus de Mars

Monika: Today it is my pleasure and honour to interview Venus de Mars, a transgender artist from Minnesota, poet, singer, songwriter, painter, and leader of punk-glam band All the Pretty Horses. Hello Venus!
Venus: Hey Monika ;)
Monika: When did you decide that music will be your profession?
Venus: Ha! OK... well Hmm. I guess it started as a desire way back when I was a kid... you know. The glamour... seeing the portrayals, lifestyles etc. in media from back then. That kind of attracted me to it all...but I was way to shy to sing... didn't think I could really, so I just concentrated on playing the guitar. Started on acoustic when I was like 10 years old... and did basic lessons, but I branched out on my own and tried to learn classical, and flamenco... all that stuff, but rock still called to me.
Eventually after I'd graduated from high school, and tried a bit of college (and dropped out), I fell into that old dream and formed a punk band back in the early days with friends... and tried for the first time to sing a bit. I think the Punk era ushered in possibilities. Back in the 70's everything was so crafted by the record labels... it seemed impossible to imagine how to break into that business...and frankly I didn't like the music, aside from Bowie's stuff as Ziggy... I loved that early glam stuff...but that wasn't what you usually heard on the radio. Mostly it was top 40 stuff, and I hated all that.
Well, anyway, Punk broke into the scene... The whole DIY stuff. You know, "Fuck the Record labels, let's put out our own records" kind of attitude, and that's what I needed.
I think once that happened, I actually felt like it was possible to make it a career, but of course I still didn't know how to do it. But that was the turning point. Deciding to try and make it my profession.

St. Paul Amsterdam Bar.
Photo by George Roedler.

Monika: Where do you get your music inspirations from?
Venus: Well,, from the early days, just what I mentioned in the last question: David Bowie's Ziggy era music was a huge inspiration! Then when Punk took over, I fell in love with everything really... but specifically I gravitated towards women in Punk. Patti Smith I think was pretty important... Debbie Harry too, but not as much since I was hearing her commercial stuff.
Growing up in the Midwest and all, I had to rely on the underground access for music, work of mouth, record stores friends, college radio, etc... they had the cool edgy stuff. And I began to collect it all up.
Eventually my inspiration, and style, became a combination of New-York Punk and Early 70's Glam mostly...but I try and draw from wherever too. If I hear something I really like, I'll analyze it... think about it...try some of it in a new song or whatever. Inspiration is ever growing and expanding. At least it is for me.
Monika: What was the origin of All the Pretty Horses? Could you elaborate more on the band’s music and LPs?
Venus: I had had a few bands by then...this would be through the 80's. None of them got too far. I tried to go solo with an early album: "Animal Angst" released under my birth name: Steven Grandell, but that just kind of slipped away from me... so I eventually fell into the art world... explored my work in the visual fields... found a punky new underground art gallery called "Rifle Sport Alternative Art Gallery" to join, and I became one of their core artists... that pulled me into a number of opportunities art-wise... eventually back onstage with performance art. During this time one of my old band mates from my old bands kept after me about coming back to music... after a few years of this, I eventually said yes.
This was my first A.T.P.H. drummer Bill. He and I began to try and re-form one of our old bands without success, eventually deciding to build something new from scratch, and we formed a 3-piece and this is what became "All the Pretty Horses." This was also just as I was finally untangling my transgenderism, and I presented that issue to the band... (this would be the mid 90's), and they kind of freaked out about it...but eventually dealt with it deciding it might get us some extra attention.

For me, I was just happy to finally just be myself. Doing what I loved. The band went through a lot of phases over the years. I took it over when the first album was released and after my initial drummer Bill dropped out. I brought in a new drummer, and basically became the leader of the band in all ways. I kept bringing in new members as old ones left, and sustained the concept now for 20 years! Kind of crazy. Though now it's become more of a back-up band for me. I've brought my name into its official title: "Venus de Mars & All the Pretty Horses."
Monika: Are you working on any new projects now? Where can we see your live performance?
Venus: I've actually just finished tracking for a new album. It's an acoustic album of all things...but I'm super excited about it! I've been exploring different styles of musical performance, and acoustic solo is one of them. I take the songs from my rock and roll stuff, and re-deliver them all stripped down to just my vocals, lyrics, and a simple acoustic guitar support melody.
The intimacy of that style of performance is pretty incredible. And I've been wanting to capture it somehow. So this year I decided I'd do it. I brought in my producer Barb Morrison who's worked with me on 3 past albums, and asked her to help me figure out how to capture what happens when I perform in this style. And I believe she's done an incredible job on that!. I'm expecting it to come out sometime nearly next year.

First Ave Main Room. Photo by Charles Robinson.

Beyond that, I just got off a month-long tour with Laura Jane Grace and "Against Me." I brought along my full electric band for that of course and rocked out. It was brilliant, but pretty grueling schedule-wise... 8 hour drives between gigs, performing every night, little to no sleep... I didn't sleep much, but I had a chance to get my work out to a whole bunch of new and old fans.
I hope Laura invites me onto another tour at some point. That's one way to see me live. Other than that, I do put together smaller tours on my own. I try to get around as much of the country as I can. Best way to know what I'm up to is to follow me on twitter.
Monika: Did the transition change your artistic perception of the world? What does it mean to be a transgender artist?
Venus: Such a good question!
So... well, I transitioned, or began my journey untangling everything trans-wise a bit over twenty years ago... that puts it into the early to mid nineties. As you can imagine it was such a different world back then for trans-people. Frankly, I was scared to death, but as any trans-person knows, you really don't have a choice once you come out.
Finally admitting to one's self who you are is so important. I had become very suicidal, and had already been married for about five years, and that was falling apart because of my depression. So when I finally came out to my wife (and myself,) I was both relieved but kind of stunned. (...quickly on my relationship... my wife and I are still together and doing well. We really beat the odds, and survived everything. I'm very proud of her and our relationship.)
My perception of the world: Yeah, it changed it... I had to face the oppression I'd only observed up to that point. I became the target. It was hard. The depression I'd had because I was too afraid to come out, had now transformed into a depression over having to deal with all the oppression and hatred. I worked hard at staying steady and strong in my new trans-identity, but I'd get knocked down daily with some sort of confrontation or another. It was exhausting, and I never knew where it was going to come from next. Every day I had to (metaphorically) put on my "emotional armor" and head out into the world.

Musically: That changed too... It gave me a voice. Something I could write about. My lyrics became much more focused on my own experiences. My songwriting became something much more personal. I could tackle subjects I understood first hand. Though it was hard of course, I wouldn't change a thing. Coming out as trans totally closed all the doors for me in the traditional music-biz world. At the same time, it also resulted in a very fierce and loyal fan-base.
Something which sustained me when things got really hard. I broke all the rules really. I couldn't get anywhere officially, the music-biz world wouldn't touch me. So I had to go it alone. Truly an indie-band. I became my own record label. I booked everything. I brought the band out to New York and became part of that punk scene which I'm SO thankful for. Those times performing at CBGB's, the Meow Mix, etc... all the cool punk-goth clubs there during the 90's are experiences I very much value. I toured the U.K. twice, New Zealand twice, had a documentary done on me "Venus of Mars" which brought me and the band ever farther out into the world. All this wouldn't have happened if I hadn't taken that fearful risk of coming out way back then.
So even though I had to build my own path musically because of all the closed doors, I wouldn't change anything if I had the chance to do it all over. And now, after having survived all those hard early days, seeing how the world is changing, how our Trans-voices are finally being heard... it's truly incredible! I am SO happy to be alive AND still working at this powerful and pinnacle time.

At a performance in their warehouse space studio.
Photo by Neza S.G. in Minneapolis.

Monika: The contemporary music has produced a new wave of transgender female artists, just to name few of them: Mina Caputo of Life of Agony, Laura Jane Grace of Against Me!, Marissa Martinez of Cretin, Amber Taylor of The Sexual Side Effects, Namoli Brennet, Sissy Début, and Jennifer Leitham, and many others. Are we facing the creation of a new music trend in this respect?
Venus: Oh yes. I know we are. I've also had the good fortune of both knowing and sharing the stage with two of those you've listed: Namoli Brennet and Laura Jane Grace. They are both incredible artists. I know they'd not have had the support they have now if we weren't experiencing this new embrace of the trans-experience. They are truly trans-warriors (as well as all the rest you listed)! I am so proud of our trans-community.
Monika: In 2013 you and your wife were embroiled in an aggressive tax audit by the State Of Minnesota over your status as professional artists. The whole case was so preposterous. The Minnesota Revenue Department claimed that your artistic careers were not profitable enough to qualify you as "professional" artists and demanded back taxes for tax deductions claimed over the years. How did the case finish?
Venus: Yeah, it was crazy... it boiled down to profitability driving their attack on us. We did have to hire a lawyer... which was paid for through very generous donations from supporters all over... No way could I have afforded to do that on my own without going into debt on a credit card...and I'm already swamped with band biz debt from the many years having to be my own record label.
Anyway... it took a bit over a year and a half, and it also took us going into the appeals process because the state initially made the final determination against me.
In the end... I was able to demonstrate to the appeals auditors, with the help of our lawyer, that I indeed HAD done everything right, and acted appropriately as a business with my investments, which caused my losses.
They agreed, and they turned the case against me around. So it was a 100% win. No penalties, my tax status as a working artist remains intact. It was absolutely crazy.

I'm still not sure why I wasn't heard. I had all my document, receipts, etc. in order. Was it because of my being trans? I don't know. The initial auditor did seem terribly accusatory and talked about me being a "big transgender rock star..." but it didn't go further than that, so there was nothing I could specifically point to.
Something I learned is that there are times when you DO feel powerless. When the massive government engine turns an eye towards you and decides not to listen, you feel helpless. It took hiring a lawyer, and $12,000.00 in legal fees to be heard.


All the photos: courtesy of Venus de Mars.
© 2014 - Monika Kowalska

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