Weston Allen's live New York debut was a strange, oddly sensual experience. Wearing a lemon yellow suit with matching hair, the queer artist was flanked by two backup dancers in head-to-toe checker print that covered their faces like BDSM fetish hoods. The pair groped Allen wildly, before he found a mop and bucket stageside, and began aggressively masturbating the mop like it were his own. This outlandish display was matched with his own polished pop music that fuses elements of smooth jazz with dark electronica for an effect that sounds like Kenny G's latex-covered sex dungeon.
The Gloves Come Off, Allen's debut EP, subverts heteronormative tropes of easy listening across five impressive tracks with titles like "Pleasure Money" and "Glass Whip." Throughout the project, Allen bellows with the vibrato of a campy cruise ship singer above a web of electric guitar, glossy '80s synths and saxophone, which Allen says is a key instrument in the adult contemporary genre. At its surface, Allen's music is tongue-in-cheek and could easily translate as satire, but at its core challenges the "toxic masculinity, homophobia, sexual repression, religion, and complacency" of Allen's midwestern upbringing.
Stream Weston Allen's The Gloves Come Off and learn more about the underground artist, below.
OUT: You're best known for being a filmmaker. At what point did you decide you wanted to make your own music?
Weston Allen: As a kid everything was very formal musically with piano lessons and church hymns. When I finally reached school band I wanted to play saxophone because Lisa Simpson did, but you had to play clarinet for a year before so I picked that up. I masturbated for the first time before our opening band recital, so that's kind of a transitional moment for me. Puberty got me started in rock music and I started playing in bands around town. Music's just such an easy and enjoyable way to express myself. I felt like I hadn't had an outlet in a long time. I wanted to make something fast and not obsess over it--just get it out there. I also felt like I needed a break from filmmaking.
Going into this EP, did you know exactly the sound and art direction you wanted?
I definitely had an art direction going in. I got obsessed with the color yellow. We see it everywhere, usually reserved for vibrant, pretty things like flowers, but also very dangerous things like caution signs. I like it as a symbol that's beautiful, but is also like, "Danger: Do Not Touch." BDSM and sex clubs were very inspirational. I imagined The Gloves Come Off being the soundtrack to this tacky, leather-adorned orgy orchestrated by Kenny G.
For me, The Gloves Come Off is giving sleazy car salesman-turned-pop star.
That's funny--I definitely relate to that person, being showy and flamboyant. For this project I wanted to play with these seemingly masculine characters, crack their facades, and dissect them figuratively, and also quite literally on songs. I wanted to let these voices go somewhere they're not supposed to, and be vulnerable and sensitive. Some male underground artists today play these broken, down-and-out pop star characters and think they're critiquing these '70s and '80s machismo tropes by pushing the trope even further as satire, but I feel like they're really just perpetuating an already tired musical tradition of misogyny and bigotry. As a queer artist it's my desire to take these very vanilla, hetero ideals somewhere refreshing and inclusive. I'm always trying to be conscious of falling into the damaging, recycled tropes. I think it's dangerous to fail here, in all seriousness.
Sonically, what were you aiming for on this project?
I was aiming for this crossover of sappy easy listening with something harder and darker. The saxophone is such an iconic instrument for this task. Its dual nature as cornball-trope of adult contemporary, as well as avant-garde weapon made it a perfect go-between. That's the whole ethos behind the project: toe that line, catch people off guard on what's camp and what's deathly serious.
Lyrically, what are some central subjects on The Gloves Come Off?
The majority of the EP deals with my midwestern upbringing and all the toxic masculinity, homophobia, sexual repression, religion, and complacency that goes along with that. Sometimes in order to be honest on a song I ramp up this cornball melodrama to mask it. So there is some unpacking, but it's like when you listen to a "bad" song ironically long enough it can really start to move you. Another attempt of the EP was to take these central characters at the heart of feel-good-easy-listening music and give them a little nihilism. Suddenly Michael Bolton is wringing his hands over global warming or corporate gluttony's effect on his lover's psyche.
What was the production process like for creating these tracks?
Joel Martin, who produced the EP with me, helped coach the saxophonist Zak Pischnotte through the tracks. We basically just kept pushing for cheesier and smoother, feeding him motivational cliches like rainy boardwalks and mountaintops to play on, but then also asking him to make sounds like he was getting whipped in a sex dungeon. All the horn parts were performed live in this way. Joel is amazing and helped find solutions to all the hard problems for the songs, whether that be balancing a piano/sax duet in the rainforest on "Flamingo" or orchestrating the moans of pleasure and power tools in the dungeon interlude on "One Weird Trick."
How do you see your live show as an extension of the music? During your performances, you deflate and inflate blow-up saxophones.
Every band or music project I've ever done has been a strong visual experience, too. For any show I like to be spontaneous and explore every inch of the stage, even under it. The inflatable instruments were first and foremost practical and compact for touring Europe without a backing band, but I also like them symbolically as the project's facade: cheap, plastic and full of hot air. There's something very sensual about deflating them.
Knowing you're involved in so many projects, where do you see this music project going?
Honestly, the project will fold unless I take it to that next level and get Kenny G involved. I mean how can we truly dissect this music without going to its source? From that building block, myself and other queer collaborators can work together to chip away and build on the heteronormative foundation of easy listening and smooth jazz and really claim it. If Kenny doesn't return my calls I don't know what'll come of all this.