"I went to high school and college in the '70s, when punk hit really big in the States," says the 37-year-old musician. "And a lot of straight people called me a fag because I listened to Blondie, The Clash, X-Ray Specs, and stuff like that. I remember when Patti Smith's album Horses came out. Here was this sexually ambiguous woman on the cover in a white shirt. Nobody wore a white shirt like that in the mid-'70s, so I went out and bought one just like it.
"When I came out as a gay man, nobody in the community seemed to be listening to this kind of music, so I felt ostracized again. Our first album, Undressed, was a reaction against the whole Judy Garland thing, against the idea that as a gay man I was supposed to relate to this singer because she had a miserable life. Well, I haven't had a miserable life. Maybe straight people have an easier time, but I like my life."
The creation of Pansy Division, says Jon Ginoli, was an attempt to "marry my gay life and my music life" as well as "clear the deck" of gay musical culture and "start all over." In San Francisco, he placed a newspaper ad seeking a musician and met 35-year-old Chris Freeman, who is, he says, "the talented one...I just get by." Freeman was in three other bands at the time, all of which he took more seriously; he played in Pansy Division for the fun of it. The band's local, then national, reputation began to rise thanks to publicity from 'zines such as Outpunk for singles like "Touch My Joe Camel" and "Bill and Ted's Homosexual Adventure" ("After trying to deny it/They went ahead and tried it/Couldn't believe how excellent it felt"). After this, Chris Freeman became a full-time Pansy.
Not unlike Spinal Tap (whose stomper "Big Bottom" they cover), Ginoli estimates that he and Freeman have worked with a total of 10 drummers during the last six years. The usual personality conflicts played into this, but so did the twosome's desire to have an all-gay trio. It was, he says, "difficult to find an out gay drummer." A 22-year-old former fan named Luis ("no last names, please, he wants to be mysterious") has taken up the sticks for what Ginoli hopes is the long haul.
Although not their best album (that distinction belongs to 1994's snappy, rollicking Deflowered), Wish I'd Taken Pictures reflects a tighter musical focus, as well as a more varied production palette. The extensive touring Pansy Division has done since 1994--first opening for Green Day on their world tour and then supporting their own albums tirelessly across the club circuit--has streamlined their music, but at the same time made them more conscious of the little touches that make a song stick in people's heads. With Luis in place, they also have a different approach to the songwriting process.
"With the other drummers, Chris and I would sit at home alone and write songs with an acoustic guitar, then bring them into the studio," says Jon. "Our last experience in the studio was much more collaborative."
"It" boy producer Steve Albini (Nirvana, The Breeders, and Bush, a band whose name makes Ginoli cringe) helmed the boards for a series of songs Pansy Division recorded recently that will be released this summer by Lookout, along with some previously uncollected singles. The presence of a superstar knobsman like Albini begs the question--how far away is Pansy Division from signing with a major label? Are they even interested?
"We're not against the idea per se, if we thought we'd be treated right," says Ginoli. "And some people have expressed interest for a while now. But I think it would serve our career better in the long run if we stayed independent. Right now if we signed, we'd get a major push and then fade away. Besides, your song has to be on the radio to sell, and right now I don't think many stations in America would play a Pansy Division song."
Last year they shot a video for a song called "I Really Wanted You" from Wish I'd Taken Pictures. It was played on MTV's 120 Minutes and then many more times in Canada. Ginoli expects it'll be included on a collection of music videos by Lookout bands due--perhaps--at the end of the year. In the meantime, though, Ginoli and company are half-considering a more personal way to showcase their talents.
"We've been thinking about making our own porn film," he snickers. "We already shot some photos of ourselves looking like the models in those ads that got Calvin Klein in trouble; we sold them on our last tour. But I want to make a video where I turn my head to the camera while I'm fucking some guy and say, 'And now, here's the video for 'I Really Wanted You'...'"