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.
You're helping a girl become a rock star on MTV's Made. What's the best advice that you've given her?
You shouldn't try to be somebody else. I'm not going to make you dress like me. I'm not going to make you do anything. Rock and roll is about being the most dangerous version of yourself.
What is dangerous about you?
I'm willing to talk about anything. Our show is very sexual. We're a real band with real instruments and we play our asses off. In the context of music in 2008, that's pretty dangerous.
Tell me about your bandmates.
Cole [Whittle], the bass player, and I were roommates our freshman year at Berklee College of Music. The cosmos just kind of put us together. We were both horrified -- he showed up with crosses and Bibles and I showed up with a backpack of MAC cosmetics and platform shoes. Luckily our third roommate was such a drip. He was basically dead for the first week, and after three days, we had to be like, is he going to wake up? So we bonded over that. [Drummer] Dan [Crean] and Cole started playing in some geeky jazz trio together. And [guitarist] Aaron [Lee Tasjan] went to the same school but after we did. Friends introduced us. We were all in New York at that time, and we were so fucking bored with all the bands that were taking themselves so seriously. We decided to form a party band.
Do you still consider yourselves a party band?
I do. What's really great about our band is that for people who just want it to be a party band, it can be. People who want something more from it, it's there. For our dudes in Boston who just want to come and pump their fists and see all the gorgeous girls who come to our shows, they have it. For the gorgeous girls and the teens who feel awkward about themselves, they can look a little deeper into the lyrics and see me as -- hopefully -- a very positive role model.
What brings you together?
The love of a live show. And our sense of humor is really similar -- but I don't really make fart jokes, and they do. That's the difference. I won't do it. I don't fart. I've never heard of that.
How do you describe your sexuality?
It's very fluid. It kind of just changes. But I'm really into people who look like me. Saying that I'm bi is so '90s, I feel like I'm in a Winona Ryder movie. I always try to find a funny way to answer the question.
On Chelsea Lately, she called you a "narcissexual." Do you agree?
Ish... It just kind of happened. I dated a woman for a year who pretty much looks exactly like me, which probably just means I have other issues. I was like, I kind of have to come out all over again. My parents didn't believe me! They totally thought I was fucking with them. She's taller than I am without heels, really sarcastic and so fucking over the top it's ridiculous. I think they maybe thought she was post-op, but she's not. They still love her. We broke up, but we're still very good friends.
Are you attracted to boys who look like you, too?
Yeah, but I have a really hard time with boys. I feel like gay guys fight so hard to come out of the closet and be who they are -- and they all just turn into each other. Their personalities become Abercrombie and the fact that they're gay. Or they turn into the same gay hipster. A lot of guys really don't like the fact that I'm with girls, too. That really upsets them. They feel like I'm a traitor or something. Shouldn't we all just be happy with everything?
How do you describe your gender?
I see myself as a man. But if I'm not in makeup I don't feel pretty at all.
When did you start wearing makeup every day?
When I was like 14. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, but then I went to an arts high school in the city. I had an hour commute on the train every day, and my friend Joanna had enough MAC cosmetics to kill somebody. So we'd sit on the train every morning and do our makeup together. And now I work with MAC! They had me go to a bunch of Fashion Week events in a full face of makeup.
What are you listening to right now?
I'm back into my female hip-hop craze, like Lil' Kim and Trina. It's hard to say who's better, because they both talk about their pussies a lot. I'm really into the hip-hop girls because new rock is so boring. It's about people trying to convince everyone they're just like everyone else.
What do you think is the greatest, gayest album ever?
[Immediately] Nirvana, Nevermind. It's the ultimate outsider record. Kurt Cobain gave a voice to every weirdo out there. People were dying to be weird. He made it so cool that every rich white kid wanted to pretend they had some problem. It was amazing.
What is the most important thing parents should do or say if their kids are weird?
I like how you phrased that. Please put in there that that's how you asked that.
Well, I feel like there's plenty of room in that outcast crowd to be queer or not queer.
Right, it's about being weird. My family is the best family that's ever existed. They're fucking awesome. I was just on the phone with them because Chelsea Lately just finished showing in Chicago.
What did they think?
I just kept asking my mom, "How did I look? Did I look good? Did I look gorgeous? How's my skin?" She said, "I was paying attention to what you were saying, not your skin. I've seen your skin." I was like, fuck you, Mom! Then my dad got on the phone and he said, "You looked beautiful. I'm so proud of you. I always pictured the first time I would turn on the radio and hear SPW. But instead it was turning on the TV and seeing you."
You and Kate Moss have been photographed together, and she says she's a fan of yours. Are you actually friends-friends?
I wouldn't call us friends-friends. But, you know.
What celebrity should be into your band?
Stevie Nicks. I think she's a genius.
Which Fleetwood Mac song would you cover?
I'd love to do "Gold Dust Woman," because it would be like Stevie and Courtney Love and then me. That sounds about right.
Get more Semi Precious Weapons at their official site.