Local Current Blog

Venus de Mars reflects on touring with Against Me! and her journey as trans artist

Publicity photo by Tony Nelson

Anyone who has seen Venus de Mars perform with her band All the Pretty Horses knows that the veteran punk rock and goth artist isn’t afraid of putting it all out there—at times literally, with only a few strips of electrical tape and a well-placed corset serving as her only stage wear.

Her new album, Flesh and Wire, might be de Mars’ most revealing work yet. With only an acoustic guitar and a few scuffling, subtle background rhythms standing between her and her listeners, de Mars is shining a spotlight on her big, booming, three-octave range voice and introspective lyrics in a way she’s never done before.

The new album was recorded in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota at the converted church Sacred Heart, and comes at the end of a harrowing year-and-a-half battle with the Minnesota Department of Revenue and the completion of the biggest tour of her career, opening for fellow transgender artist Laura Jane Grace and her band Against Me!

Both experiences sent de Mars reeling, causing her to reflect on her identity as an artist and her role in the trans community—a pensive mindset that is well suited to this quieter, more intimate and immediate-sounding new recording. Flesh and Wire and an accompanying 12″ vinyl single of the song “Take My Shoulder” (which features backing vocals by Laura Jane Grace) will be released tonight with a show in Duluth at Amazing Grace and on Sunday night in Minneapolis with a show at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

Tell me about the experience of last year, being on tour with Against Me! How did you first connect with Laura Jane Grace?

I heard about Laura first, of course, because she came out. And then people started posting her coming-out article on my wall. And embarrassingly, to me, my immediate [feeling] was jealousy. Because I was like, “God dammit, I came out 20 years ago and it ruined my career. Why didn’t I come out now? Why is she getting all the attention?” It’s that human horrible thing that happens to you when you’re feeling alone. And then it turns out that she was coming through town and she was looking for gender-variant people that she wanted to interview, and my old ex-dancer and business partner, Shannon [Blowtorch] suggested me. I met her in the back of First Avenue. We talked and did a little interview—that whole thing ended up on the cutting room floor—but I got to talk to her and meet her. And then it turns out that she had also known about me and my work previously, because she had been looking to see who else has done this, come out. That’s the way the world works: I go through this stupid little jealousy thing, and then I meet her and I have to feel dumb and humbled.

After that I got an email from their manager, and it just said, “We’re looking for someone to open for August.” So needless to say I had to quickly clear my schedule in August. That was wonderful. Wonderful to get to know her better.

Was that the biggest tour you’ve ever been on?

Yes. That’s the biggest, longest tour, and it was a chance for me to see the above-ground music business. I’ve been touring for 20 years, but they’ve all been my own tours that I’ve financed and put together and acted as the record label. Those were all underground. So it was a really interesting experience to see the audiences that she saw, and to have those people interacting with me. And it was also very interesting to see the difference that has happened over the 20 years since I came out, versus when Laura’s come out now. The reaction of the press, the audience, and the fans. It was just really, really interesting, and a powerful experience. For all the struggles and the frustrations that I had coming out back in the ’80s, to see the changes and to live the changes as a trans person is a privilege. It’s pretty incredible. I feel very lucky.

Do you look at a situation like that in reflection and realize that’s something that you’ve contributed to? This evolution of thought, and this increasing amount of acceptance?

Here’s what I think of what I did. I still do feel in the weeds over everything. I still feel like I don’t have a path, and I don’t know where I’m going, or how to go there, or what to do. I still feel very blind in my movement in the world, in my art career, my music career, and as a trans person. What I have been able to do, I think, reflecting back, is that I have been able to crack open the door. But then I get kicked aside, because I’m the first one that cracks it open. So it’s people like Laura, and some of the new trans performers in town, and nationally, on TV shows now—those are the people that kicked the door wide open. And they’re the ones that can do something with that, and get it to happen.

But I think I’m maybe part of the trans community who you don’t hear about; who have been able crack it open, just because we don’t know what else to do. So I think I will be ok with that. I don’t like to take on importance that I don’t feel I deserve. I think I’ve been able to do some things. And you only do it because I want to do something with your life. I want to be successful. When I was 18 I wanted to be a rock star. That’s the only thing I wanted to do.

Do you remember the moment you made that decision, “I want to be a rock star”?

Oh sure. I have a number of different times when that’s happened. When I was a kid, it was the first run of the Monkees TV show. I loved them. I thought that was so cool. And I was too young to see that it was a fake band, you know. So that was like, “I want to do this. I want to be in a band.” And I must have been, I don’t know, eight or nine. But then David Bowie, I started hearing about him, and I remember the first time I heard “Space Oddity.” I was not much older than that, and my mom had gone to Target in Duluth, on the hillside, and I was riding along. She let me stay in the car, in the parking lot, and it was evening, so it got dusk, and “Space Oddity” came on. I remember it. It was so incredible. I just love that song.

I’ve always been a fan of all of the things Bowie has done. Even the things that people haven’t liked. What I’ve admired is that he’s figured out how to navigate being able to grow old in rock ‘n’ roll. I’m 55 now, and I don’t know what to do with that. I don’t have trans role models who are dealing with this; they’re all younger. So I don’t really know, exactly, how to age as a rock ‘n’ roller. Especially as male to female. That’s a whole different thing—you can’t get gnarly like a Rolling Stone.

There are two different Bowie covers on Flesh and Wire, and I really love your take on “Five Years.” What draws you to that?

I think what I liked about “Five Years” was the idea of time—like we don’t have a lot of time left. That pulled me into it. And just thinking about my own career and my own projection, I have more behind me than I have in front of me, so I have to figure out what to do with what I have left. That’s been a process of personal searching. But that intrigued me, with that song. I loved that sense of mortality.

You recorded the new album up at Sacred Heart. Did you gravitate toward that because you grew up in Duluth?

I found it in more recent years, just because Low has been up there, and I follow to see what other bands are from Duluth and what they’re doing. And you know, I’m a rock ‘n’ roller, so I’ve been more interested in the punk scene. I saw Wendy O. in Superior, Wisconsin when I was 18, that was life-changing, and also the reason I do the electric tape pasties. I’ve always been interested in the big amps, the distortion, all that show. But I’ve paid attention to the subtler bands, and Duluth suddenly got a lot of these kind of slower, quiet bands that were really interesting to listen to. And then I found that Low had actually caused some national attention to be given to Sacred Heart. So I was thinking about that. And I liked the idea because Duluth is my hometown.

I have to ask you about the Swedish fiddler, Joel Bremer, who plays on “Love Hurts.” How did that come about?

Yeah, Joel! Well he was a fixture here for a couple of years, at Jim Walsh’s hootenanny. Do you know him?

Oh yes. He’s wonderful.

He’s stayed in touch. He sat in with some of my songs [when he was in town], and he really loved doing that, and missed that. The particular song he wanted to do was already taken, but I said, well, I’ve got one song left that I want to do, and that was “Love Hurts.” And then eventually I got back these takes, and I found this just really haunting, spare version that he did, almost Middle Eastern sounding, and it was just gorgeous. And then when I decided that was going to be the B-side of the [12″ single] I let him know and he was really thrilled.

I wanted to go back to your experience playing the hootenanny, because this is an acoustic record. Did that experience informed the approach you’re taking with these songs?

Absolutely. Yeah. I had met Jim—he recognized me, I didn’t know him at that time—at a Northeast gas station. I was getting gas, and this guy walks over to me and calls me Venus and goes, “You gotta come and play at one of my hootenannies! It’s me, Jim Walsh!” [laughs] And he said, “just show up here and bring your guitar and we’ll just have fun.” So we set a time, and then I’m emailing him and saying, “Should I be standing? Is this formal? How many songs?” And he goes, “No, no, we just all sit in a circle and we just play one after the other, we take turns. No amplification. Everybody is good about staying quiet.” And I’ve done performance art. I’ve done work with being nude, all of this stuff—this frightened me. So I showed up and I’m just a wreck. I chose a number of songs that I thought would translate to acoustic, and the reaction was really stunningly powerful and emotional. People heard the lyrics, and I think maybe because of my nerves I was very emotional when I did the performance of them. It really struck a chord that I didn’t expect.

venus-tonynelson-tallOne thing that always struck me about being at a hootenanny is that you don’t go to that many shows where people are so quiet, and actually listening. Does that change the way that you deliver the songs?

Oh absolutely. Yes. And the acoustic stage is so different—I don’t know it yet. This is all really new for me. I know the rock ‘n’ roll stage, and trying to catch people’s attention when they’re all drinking and talking and trying to catch up with whatever happened to them that day, and you’re just noise in the background. I understand all that, and I know how to do that. I don’t know how to deal with the acoustic stuff. It’s a different animal. You really do feel like you’re saying something, and you’re making a difference. And it makes you much more emotionally connected to the music.

It’s such an interesting thing, to be on stage, and to be afraid, and then to get disconnected from your body, really. It becomes—I don’t want to say a spiritual experience, but it is a definitely transcendent experience. It’s just incredible. I’m just fascinated with what happens, and how we connect as humans. I don’t know if I would have ever thought of things in this way when I was 18. I didn’t.

You know, you need an ego to be a performer. And sometimes you let the ego in the driver’s seat, and you shouldn’t. The ego needs to be the engine—it needs to propel you forward—but you don’t want to give it control. I’ve been embarrassed so many times because I’ve let it take over, and just regretted it. I’ve learned that over the years. And that’s something I’m glad I’ve learned.

Does playing acoustically levels the playing field more between you and the audience?

Yes, it does. It’s humbling, it really is.

I was surprised to hear, when you were speaking earlier, that you feel like you’re navigating blindly through this journey of being a trans performer. Because when I think about your story, I think about you overcoming so many obstacles throughout your career—the word tenacity comes to mind. Where do you find your inner strength to keep pushing forward?

It’s changed. Earlier in the trajectory of All the Pretty Horses, it was ego. And the accomplishments I had—we were able to establish ourselves out in New York, enough so that people thought we lived out there, and we played CBGBs proper and we played the gallery next door multiple times—those kind of accomplishments and establishments perpetuated me. I felt like they were like badges, you know. They were like stepping stones. Well, that’s not going to last forever, if you don’t really make it. Then it became obvious it wasn’t going to happen. We met with a music lawyer out in New York, and the music lawyer pulled me aside after he asked if I would consider changing what I did on stage or how I presented myself, and he said, “Well, I really have to tell you, I really like what you’re doing, I really like your music, but I can’t help you. I can’t sell you to anybody. Nobody will buy you. Nobody will invest in you.” So that was our big break to get into above-ground music, and we were too hot.

So now, what keeps me going? When I was touring with Laura, I worked the merch booth in my corset and my thigh highs and fishnets and pasties, you know. And what they did for this tour is they made it an all-ages tour. So we’re working with all-ages kids. Laura has her old punker fans that are there that stayed with her, and then she’s got these trans kids all over the place, they’re all going nuts. And they’re there with their parents. And it was incredible.

When I came out—and it still happens, on occasion—I was kicked off a jury duty early on because it was assumed that because of the way I looked, I would be biased in favor of a child molester. There was a ruling that I was not part of a protected class. That was back in the late ’80s. It made all the local press. It was very startling. And then I was on a local talk show as a trans person, and the talk show host asked the audience to take the kids out because we were too controversial. So I’ve got this odd little place with me and kids. I don’t want to deal with kids; I’m worried, basically. I’m worried of what people think of me, and what they imagine. So I’m on tour and all these kids are hanging around, and they want to get photographs with me because they recognize me from having been just on stage. And they’re so hungry, and they’re so fragile, and they are just so enthralled with everything—and their parents are the ones that are taking the photographs. It’s like, “Are you sure you want to take a photograph with me, with my pasties, with your kid?” It was an incredible experience.

So the difference of what pulls me forward now–it’s not me wanting to be a rock star anymore. It’s not me with my ego. That’s all gone. It’s that I feel like I’m saying something. Now, I feel like I can contribute. And I didn’t feel that before.

I’m interested in what you said earlier about not knowing how to age into the later years of being a rock star. To me, it seems like you have this whole lifetime of experience and perspective that you can contribute that other people couldn’t. That seems so important.

Thank you. I know, as a songwriter, and as a performer, in all the aspects that I’ve performed in, I now value that experience to draw from, that palette that I have. So I see the value of that, and I do want to access that. But it’s scary to get older. You know, I didn’t transition fully, so I worry how people will see me. Will I be able to maintain my uniqueness when I can’t advocate for myself anymore? How will that unfold? It’s a frightening world ahead of me, and I don’t know how I will navigate that. And I still feel an imbalance. I know I don’t project that all the time, but I feel that inside, and I know other trans people feel that. And I think that’s part of the experience.

I feel like I’m coming from an older world, now. You know, Lynette and I stayed together through the whole thing. She still calls me by my birthname. And she still refers to me as “he.” That throws people off. But that’s just how we’ve been able to survive together. I don’t feel male at all. But I don’t feel female, either. I feel that I’m trans. I’m trans, male to female. That’s my gender. And I know that’s somewhat controversial within the trans community. But for me, I feel like my whole life is who I am. There wasn’t a mistake. The struggles, the difficulties—that’s why I am who I am. I don’t want to dismiss them, I don’t want to say that was wrong. I am who I am because of all that, not despite that.

I think we need to be happy with who we are, and not try to be somebody we’re not. That doesn’t mean to say you don’t do what you need to do to feel right. I take hormones, yes. I’ve had nose surgery. I’ve done what I needed to do to try to find a place that I feel comfortable. Some people have to go through a complete transition, and go through complete surgery. But what I want to say is you don’t have to. You have the choices. Are you doing it for everybody else? Or are you doing it for yourself? And I think that’s the question, as trans people, we have to ask ourselves.

That’s such an intensely personal journey. I feel like most people don’t know themselves that well, or have to know themselves that well.

As I’ve gone through this, I think it’s a gift, in that it forces you to be reflective. It forces you to think about how you fit. You go out and you walk down the street, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. Just when I was touring with Laura, I had to stop and pee one time at a place in California—a rest stop, one of the great big ones. The boys went in to their side and I went into the women’s room, and right there, next to the women’s room door, was a big sign that said “Anybody found in this bathroom not of the gender designated for this bathroom will be arrested.” And I was like, I gotta pee. I’m going in. So I didn’t waste time in there. That’s the kind of world that you navigate. And so you can’t help but be reflective.

Venus de Mars performs a solo acoustic show and releases Flesh and Wire on Sunday night, April 5, at the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Jim Walsh opens. Follow more of Venus’s story on her website