Gold Dust Man
By Shana Naomi Krochmal
Some bands scream because they can't sing, bash their instruments into amps because they can't play and flail through an over-the-top show because it's the only way to keep a crowd's attention. Semi Precious Weapons, a dangerously ambitious group from New York whose debut We Love You (Razor & Tie) just dropped, plays explosive, surprisingly musical balls-to-the-wall rock and roll because they can -- and they can look real damn pretty doing it, too. Led by six-foot-tall platinum blonde Justin Tranter ("make that six foot, six inches with stilettos," their official bio boasts), SPW can out-sing, out-perform and out-shock any other new band on the scene.
The triple threat hasn't gone unnoticed. Their album was executive produced by Tony Visconti, who has worked on more than a dozen David Bowie albums. Last year, Village Voice readers named them best local band. Perez Hilton will feature them in his upcoming showcase at the influential CMJ music festival, and his website debuted the video for their self-titled track, "Semi Precious Weapons."
It helps that underneath the cock rock-and-grunge glam fusion are four classically trained musicians (Tranter, guitarist Aaron Lee Tasjan, bassist Cole Whittle and drummer Dan Crean are all alums from Boston's famed Berklee College of Music). That background shows especially in live shows on rare slower numbers like "Time Zones," a soaring, scratchy ballad proving Tranter's vocal performances owe as much to Heart's Ann Wilson as Axl Rose. Tasjan's riffs underscore lyrics that are impishly, defiantly queer and yet still vulnerable. "It's not my fault I look better in her party dress," Tranter sings in "Magnetic Baby," as much a mission statement as a come on: "In my bed there's a song / Do you want to sing along?" In the self-titled track, "I can't pay my rent, but I'm fucking gorgeous," Tranter promises. In the "November Rain"-esque "Rock 'n' Roll Never Looked So Beautiful," the band's mid-'90s grunge influences are also clear: The lines "Sometimes I cry because it makes my eyes look bluer / Sometimes I bleed because red is a good color for me" would have fit neatly on a Nirvana album.
In Los Angeles to promote the album release, Tranter curled up on a couch in the dressing room and told Out about being equally inspired by female hip-hop stars and Courtney Love, his "narcissexuality," and how his parents reacted when he donned full make-up and heels to survive being a "weirdo."
Out: Where does Semi Precious Weapons fit among New York gender-bending rock bands? Do you have clear ancestors?
Justin Tranter: We get compared a lot to the New York Dolls. I think the essence of it is true. Musically, no. I would never listen to them. I'm a kid of the '90s -- I listen to Courtney Love, Nirvana, and the female rappers that came out at the end of the '90s. And Biggie. It's like it skipped a generation or two and we got the essence of what [the New York Dolls] were about. But people will show up to interviews and ask the whole band about dressing up. And we'll say, didn't you look at the pictures? It's just me. The New York Dolls all dressed up, and people can't grasp that we're just people being us. And with gay publications, they don't want to talk about the fact that I'm into everything.
They're just like, "you're gay"?
Yeah, and that doesn't upset me -- but I think we're cutting the queer community short. I also hate when we're "queer band Semi Precious Weapons." We're not, so it's not fair to the other guys in the band.
None of them are gay?
No, not that they care. And as artists, it almost demeans us, like if that wasn't there, maybe [gay magazines] wouldn't write about us. But since it is, maybe they'll talk about it. I hate that. I think that's setting things back.
Tell me about your fans.
Most of our fans are girls. Except the first time we played a show in Boston, there were like 30 frat dudes up front in white baseball caps, pounding their fists -- frat boy cartoons. I was like, do they hate me? Do they want to kill me? But wait -- they know all the words, and we don't even have a record out! Which means they're just on our MySpace page, hitting repeat. They must love it! And they did. They didn't fucking care. I think a lot of younger kids, it's getting to be like that -- if you want rock and roll, you have to listen to things that are older. They're listening to Alice Cooper and David Bowie and AC/DC. They don't care what my sexual preference is, or what I wear.