Interview: Venus De Mars
WHOLE BEAST RAG: Let’s talk about Minneapolis creative culture.
VENUS DE MARS: Yes, well, one of the difficult things that I’ve found that’s happened with me here—and probably because I’ve just been doing this for so long—but I’m not really a new story any longer. And I never got signed because well, because even though rock and roll seems like such a big risk taking institution; it’s not. All the people that would have signed us just did not want to take that risk. So we were getting ready to do this on our own but that…I worry that Minneapolis is not confident enough in itself to take the risk of new things and finding the story. I worry that our press is more of a follower. If you go to a big city like new york you’ll find some risk-taking going on in the press. Lots of reporters, investigators, reviewers want to find the next thing, want to find the story and want to write it. I worry that Minneapolis is more like…waiting until something’s really working and then we’ll do it…
WBR: I think that’s a fair criticism.
VDM: I don’t want to criticize it but it seems like that happens and I know that I do much better when I go out of town than I do here and I think people have kind of got jaded by other places [laughs] like wow, minneapolis is open to all these cool things and people “look at what you do, look at what you do” and I have to say “well not a lot of people really write about me.” [laughs]
WBR: You know that’s interesting because I was thinking about questions to ask you and one of them was you know, how do you feel the landscape of minneapolis has affected you, how does it respond to your art? I mean, I have many thoughts about Minneapolis—that it seems to have a creative identity crisis at times.
VDM: Well, I’ve been trying to figure that out and part of what i’ve done as an independent artist and musician in running my own record label, pretty much I’ve always tried to understand and figure out the puzzle and to know how to get the attention, how to get the art close, and this worked a lot, I’ve been able to get a lot of press. But it’s not very much anymore. One thing that’s happened is that the prominent genre is not what I do any longer. The prominent genre is hip hop and some of the poetry hip hop angle, too—that’s the major thing. That’s what gets the attention, what’s getting the most support. Which is totally reasonable and totally fine but what I think is going on with Minneapolis is that it’s a city that is not quite big enough to support other things in a more equal way. If you go to the next level, chicago or new york, it’s a little bit bigger so you’ve got more support across the different genres. You don’t just hone in on the most popular scene. And I would like Minnepaolis to do that but it doesn’t seem—it hasn’t reached that tipping point yet. It still seems to be going toward and supporting that, but I’m not really sure why. I’m not really sure.
WBR: Do you think that’s a symptom of midwestern values?
VDM: I don’t know. I mean I grew up in the midwest; I don’t feel that way.
WBR: Yeah, you don’t seem to fit the midwestern mold.
VDM: I don’t know how accurate that whole thing is. But I do think it might have to do, it might just have to do with size. And it might have to do with, in some way, it might have to do with our trying to play it safe. But I don’t know. I hesitate to criticize it because I like it here, I like living here. And I like—what I thought interesting is when I went out to new york—that’s the first place I brought my band to start establishing them—is that people out there will say what they think. If they hate it, you know they hate it. And if they like it, they’re going to go out of their way to let you know they like it, so it’s very transparent, everybody’s attitude is very transparent. So we went there and we’re very nice and you know, we’re not like being angry, not like cutting to the chase, just playing it easy, and we do our sound check and we’re not trying to show off, we’re just making sure everything works. And I remember it was at a place called Darma Hills–that’s where Squeezebox used to be, that’s where Hedwig came from—and they were the house band that did Squeezebox. And the guy that created Hedwig ran that band and he eventually got inspired and did this whole thing. But anyway, we did that, that night—that was one of the places we used to go, and the first time we went there and were working the sound man thought we were going to sound like shit. Because our sound check was so casual and so pulled back. He just didn’t expect anything. And that’s just our nature. He was expecting all of us positioning, and showing up all blah blah blah, transparency, and we’re all just like…we weren’t doing it. So he didn’t think anything was going to happen. And then we got up onstage and it was a whole different story. I mean, the horse head and the stilettos [laughs] and the pasties…and we’re just tearing into it and we’re knocking everybody over. It’s lights—we brought our whole stage show up there. Like crazy! And he talked to my tour manager who relocated later, he said “I did not think I would like this at all and this was one of the best shows I’ve seen in blah blah, you know?”
WBR: That’s so great.
VDM: And then, you know, after that when we went back he was always really nice to us and just totally understood us after that, you know, he wasn’t suspicious [laughs]. So I like that some of the things we do as midwesterners and I think—I value it.
WBR: Well it sounds like you have—I don’t want to say you have enough—but you have people pulling for you elsewhere, which can maybe help balance times when it’s not so lonely here.
VDM: Oh yeah. Well you find your support where you have to, and then you, well you figure out the real reason is that you’re doing it. When I was 18 I wanted to be a rock star. You know, I didn’t care about anything else. That’s all I wanted to do. So that was what I was going to do. And as it turned out, every time I had a chance at moving away from music, getting a real job, I just keep doing music, I keep making that turn. That movement. And you know, you go through your age changes and pretty soon you realize I’m too old to do anything else now. [Laughs] It didn’t quite turn out the way I thought it would. But I don’t really have an option anymore. So yeah. You find the reasons that you do music and for me right now it’s connecting with people and sharing what i’ve seen and it’s become an art form of expression really; it’s been communicating, exploring, sharing. Reconnecting. I really enjoy that. And I don’t care about being successful financially or having all of that publicity and that public attention, I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I’d like to make it a little easier for me to continue doing what I do so i’m not having to fall back on dumb freelancing that is just like, physically damaging to you. I’d rather spend my time working on my craft, working on some songwriting….so I’d like to at least get to that point…I don’t know, I’m not going to stop.
WBR: It sounds like it would be impossible to stop. You talk about tragic inspiration.
WBR: Would you talk more about that?
VDM: Well I think the best songs come from the things that don’t work right. That messiness of life is what is so emotional, and I think it changes who you are. It molds who you are as you go through those times. It’s like when you create—it’s like when they made the samurai swords, you know, they have to fold it and fold it and fold it and stress it and stress it and heat it and cool it and blah blah blah…and if everything was easy you wouldn’t have much of anything of worth. But it’s that stressful time, it’s that tempering—how do you manage? How do you deal with it? What do you learn from that? Those are the things that are important and makes you who you are. So in the art world, in a creative world, that’s the important thing to pay attention to and work with and help other people see and maybe give them some insight. We ALL go through that path in life. Everyone.
WBR: Definitely. I really like that metaphor of the samuarai sword you mentioned earlier. Probably one of the better ones I’ve heard that acknowledges the difficulties. [Laughs] Do you think some are better suited to dealing with those emotional ups and downs of the artistic life?
VDM: This is one thing I think about people: everyone can do anything they want. I don’t think anybody has any limitations. I know a lot of people say “oh I can’t draw…I can’t do that, you’re so talented.” Everybody can do anything they want. It’s a matter of how you get motivated to put the energy you need to accomplish what you’re trying to do. So people are more suited to that, but it’s not saying you can’t do it. People need to learn skills and techniques and you need to learn being able to handle your emotions so you don’t fly off the handle. You gotta learn how to cool down if you’re confronted with something so you can think. So we’ve all been there where we regret, we say “ah” and you gotta learn how to pull back. And I think everybody can do it. But everybody needs to learn their particular set of tools because we’re all different. You’ve got to have your own palette, your own tools, your resources to use and manage.
WBR: Do you think artists get enough support from their communities?
VDM: Oh, no. [laughs] I think some people do and some people don’t and I think it’s a popularity thing. I think people…it’s human nature, again, to want to be liked. And I think it’s human nature to want to jump on the successful mediums, the successful artist and be able to like and support the person who looks like the winner. And if you support the person that’s not going to win you look like the loser. No one wants to look like a loser. So I think there’s a struggle there. I do think there are a lot of venues and a lot of opportunity…but it’s on the artist to find their own internal support to weather all of the gaps in that support network. I think a community can, but it’s not responsible.
WBR: I can agree with that. So how do you balance your artistic freedom and audience expectations, because that seems to be a returning theme?
VDM: [long silence] I’m quiet because I’m thinking about what…right now, I just finished performing last night a duo show. It’s my drummer—actually my previous drummer, the drummer I had right before the one I have right now in the band—he, the one I worked with last night, he used to be my main drummer but then he had to stop and get life taken care of. But now he’s back and we’re working together again. But I just performed with just him and me. Without the full band—same songs, but without—a little different take, a little different delivery. A different performance. Locally, audience expectations is the full band—they want the full band, or not at all. [laughs] They don’t want to go unless it’s the full thing.
WBR: That’s too bad. It sounds like an interesting arrangement.
VDM: It is. And so what I did is we performed—we were at the Amsterdam—luckily, the other bands we’ve worked with, the one band had a vinyl release party and the others were—everybody was friendly, everybody was supporting each other, which I love. I hate when bands are like fighting it out—rock and roll’s full of that. So I really liked the atmosphere and it went from bluegrass to folk to folk rock and then us, kind of glam.
WBR: Sounds rad.
VDM: It was very fun. And I played a whole different audience than my normal audience because of that. They had heard about me, they knew about me and what I did but they’d never go out of their way to see. My regular audience was like “no, it’s no the full band, I’m not going” so I had none of my regular people there, they were not going to show up….I did one of the best shows I’ve done in a long time. It was a killer night and the sound was great; I felt so comfortable onstage, we both just loved it. This whole new audience of all age groups were buying my cds and stuff and supportive and the other bands loved it and were really happy to have worked with us, I loved that. It was just a wonderful night and—so there, I couldn’t have tried to go after audience expectations and just said, “well, I really shouldn’t do this show unless I do the full band” but I’m tired of doing the full band all the time, the same thing. I’m wanting to experiment and do something different. But balancing it—you just have to do it. You have to just want to do it. Just take what happens. So I don’t try to balance it really. I just do what I do and let the audience find…find me. That’s my answer.
WBR: [laughs] I like that. So I guess I have two sort of intertwined questions. And the larger one is: what is your vision for the future? And then sort of more concrete component of that is—what the future could be for the world, society, collectively, etc. But I’m curious what your—as I mentioned, one project for the TAMMY issue is collecting anthems from woman-identified artists—so I’m curious what yours is. It doesn’t need to be your final version.
VDM: Well, I’m looking at less time in front of me than there was behind me now. I see an end to my life. And that’s a different place to be, creatively. I never felt that before. I never felt that. I always felt like anything; i’ve been living the eighteen year olds dream for ever and I can’t do that anymore. And that’s changed a lot of how I think and write and grapple with what I’ve done. So that’s why I’m writing this memoir, which is a very interesting process of going back in time and just living that time, I’m reliving that time as I write this section, for months, you know. Like right now I’m writing about being in New Zealand and doing this tour. I did this whole thing and wrote a chapter about it so I’ve been in New Zealand for about a month and a half just thinking about it, rewriting. Rewriting, thinking about it, remembering other nuances and filling that in. so the theme….I think is paying attention. Not letting things just wash over you. There’s so much in life that happens that’s so important, and so vital. And that is valuable. I just let things wash over me for so long and I’m not anymore. I’m going back and investigating and calling people up and talking to my old people that I worked with and remembering. So I’m going on this tour in two days. And because it’s Halloween and this whole kind of timeline I’ve decided to make the tour theme—and it’s a solo tour, so it’s just me—and I’ve decided to make it about remembering our dead, so it’s inspired by the Day of Dead. And i’m going to miss the Barebones show they do here and I just love that and I can’t go see that. So, I’m going to try and bring that feeling along with me and I might even have—I don’t even know what I’m going to do yet, it will come to me—but it’s about remembering and paying attention and not forgetting. And I think that’s what I’m discovering with writing a memoir, with doing this tour…a lot of insight and a lot of seeing the world. Seeing the complexities. Seeing beyond the surface. And as a trans person, I’ve had to do that a lot. And I’ve—in dealing with opinions and attitudes people have of me right away when they see me, or they get confused—and then they’re all off-balance, they don’t know what to do. I tour and I go and I travel and I have to deal with people that don’t know how to deal with me, they’ve never done that, so they have to figure it out. So there’s all of that too.
Huh, the future. How do you talk about the future? The future is now. The future is what’s happening. I think we’ll do fine. I think we’re a great big messy group of people and we’re fucking up all over the place all the time. But there is so much passion and so much caring and so much insight and desire to prove. That I do think we’re going to. I think we’re going to make it. All the horrible things we see and read about; I think we’ll get through it.
WBR: That’s good to hear. Do you have any thoughts on the Mayan apocalypse? Asking for a friend.
VDM: [Laughs] I think they just ran out of time. I think they just got distracted.
WBR: That’s an interesting idea. Just running out of time as a culture.
VDM: The whole thing is that they’re about categorizing these big eras–
VDM: –And they have these smaller cycles within it and they had a great era in the beginning, so I think the end of the Mayan thing, I think that’s just the end of one era and we’re going to start a brand new one. They just didn’t record it. They got distracted and couldn’t write it and thus perpetuate it. I don’t think they were trying to say it’s the end of the world. I think they were saying it’s the end of an era.
WBR: I agree with that. I don’t really expect to wake up and be in heaven or nuclear post-apocalyptic…
VDM: I think the it’s up to us to write the next chapter. I think they left—this is the way I like to think of it—they did with the technology they had, all their insights, all of the medicine they had, they laid it all out. Now they gave it to us.
WBR: I was thinking as you were talking that the calendar is a construct of the mind. It deals with numbers, which are their own language of the universe, but it just seems that it’s almost as far as the Mayan brain could comprehend given earlier tools. Take for instance the fact that we can’t envision what a google is as far as amount goes; what a billion dollars feels like. I know it takes 20,000 years to spend, apparently.
VDM: It’s trying to take the spirit of existing and to figure out how to explain it.
WBR: The eternal question.
VDM: I’m not afraid of it. I’m looking forward to it. It’s time for us to take over the reins.
WBR: [laughs] From the aliens?
VDM: Or with the aliens, who knows!
WBR: With them–now that would be interesting.
VDM: We might find some colleagues out there.
WBR: [Laughs] Well, that’s about what I’ve got. Any projects we should know about? What should people stay tuned for?
VDM: I’m going to be pretty consistent on Facebook and social media as long as that lasts, and then if there’s a new one I’ll bridge to that or do something different. Gonna try and keep my public self out there for as long as I can and to share as much as I can and be honest as much as I can. A big project that I’m working on is this memoir, which is the first of a number of things. This is one little arc of time. I’m really enjoying doing that and I’ll be doing music and albums and art and performance and all of that, of course, all the time, but I think the big thing right now for me is to write down that book.
WBR: It takes some time to sit down and just do it. How long have you been working on it?
VDM: I had the idea about four years ago and I’ve been collecting up stories and ideas and I’ve made attempts at writing. I’d get 100 pages in and throw it all away. Get another couple hundred pages in and throw it all away. Decided I was biting off more than I could chew and now I’ve finally got something that I feel really good about sometime in the past six months. Really starting to feel like I’ve got the voice and the honesty I want. I feel like I’m finally making some progress but it’s about four years. I’m hoping to have something in a year where I can start really having readers and maybe soon after that. End of next year. Look for it.
WBR: Thank you Venus and good luck.