Their sound echoes the glam rock era of the 70s while they look like the New Romantics of the 80s. Vanessa Monaghan caught up with Semi Precious Weapons who are currently opening for Lady Gaga on one of the biggest tours of the year, The Monster Ball.
Semi Precious Weapons aren’t your regular run of the mill band, they’re in your face, brash, loud, glamourous. Goldenplec wasn’t sure what to expect. There’s no better way of getting acquainted than bumping into your interviewees on the stairs as they are on their way to another interview. When Justin Tranter and Cole Whittle of SPW return for our chat, it really does feel like were old buddies.
Sitting in the Gibson Hotel, we get down to business, I’m drinking coffee, Cole looks like he’s drinking coke while Justin ever the glamour queen, is drinking a glass of champagne. It’s 12.30. Lunchtime.
The band seem to be have many layers to their existence, writing, recording and touring is one thing. Then there’s starting a jewellery empire, as well as being instigators of the ‘Filthy Glamour’ New York Music scene.
‘As Gaga would like to say we kind of, created’, interrupting himself Justin continues, ‘you know her first couple of shows ever were opening for us, which is amazing and insane and very good memories… We’re the Kings and Queens of our own scene in New York. A lot of people in New York hated it and they still do. But the thousand kids that loved her and loved us and Lady Starlight and other people in the scene, the kids that loved it, really really loved it. We are very proud to be the instigators of the dirty showbiz, filthy glamour movement of New York City.’
SPW met in Berklee College of Music in Boston and moved to New York. Justin and Stevy are originally from Chicago while Cole and drummer Dan are from Virginia and Boston respectively. Given their brash style, was New York an obvious choice for the band?
‘For me it always was’, says Justin ‘since I was ten years old all I wanted to do was go to this school in Boston because it was the only place you could major in songwriting. He (pointing at Cole) and I were room mates freshman year, Random!’ Cole adds, ‘I walk in, he sees me and I see him and we’re both terrified’.
‘We didn’t start the band til after school’, explains Justin, ‘The reason he (pointing at Cole) moved to New York was because he went playing for the circus’ What? Like an actual circus? ‘It was really cool. I ran away with the circus for a long time’, laughs Cole.
This brought the group together in New York and while they had to be serious about their music in college, they now wanted to play music they had enjoyed in their teens and just have some fun. Justin explains, ‘When we were teenagers and started our own crappy rock bands, the music that made us want to do that, Guns ‘n’ Roses, Nirvana, Metallica’. Cole adds ‘Things that were scary and dangerous, sexual attitude’.
‘For me I was doing this singer songwriter thing which was very serious but I was this person I was still ridiculous and funny and looked crazy, so it didn’t really make sense. In this band my personality makes much more sense’ says Justin.
Tranter started a jewellery line ‘Fetty’ or ‘Fcuked up and Pretty’. It all started from the band needing some merchandise for their first show. Now it’s stocked in Urban Outfitters across the US and people like Kate Moss and Jennifer Lopez have been seen wearing it.
‘I always worked in jewellery stores. My mother was a custom engagement ring designer so I would go work in jewellery stores as a day job because I knew a couple of buzz words from my Mom so I could trick them into thinking I was a responsible employee.’ Shrieks of laughter ensue before Justin continues. ‘I got fired because my look kept getting crazier and crazier. They were like sorry you can’t dress like that. I was like ‘Fuck you I’m going to be dressing like this’. So for our first show I had just been fired from my job and we had no money. At all. I knew where to go in New York to get the pieces to make jewellery and the band logo was a gun and heart. Our first show we had a band name a logo and three songs.’ Cole interjects ‘two and a half songs’ before Justin continues ‘I made these gun/heart necklaces and there was maybe at the most 50 people at our show and we sold like 60 necklaces.’
Tranter then used the contacts and suppliers he had from the jewellery store and sold them his wares. This basically made him an income, enough to pay for the band and his rent. A deal with Urban Outfitters then saw his ‘Fetty’ line go across the States.
An order of 5000 pieces, meant getting all the band to make the jewellery in time for the deadline. Justin smiles as he says ‘I got all of this money, Ooh I could make myself famous’ His words speed up recalling the time. ‘I didn’t know what I was doing, we didn’t have a manager so I blew all of this money to record and we flew to London. We played five shows in London, it was ‘Why not? We’ll be famous in London’. It worked out well, Kate Moss came to a show and we were in all the papers but it cost like…thirty..’ Tranters voice trails off not really wanting to admit how much they spent.
The jewellery line kept growing so now Tranter has a couple of big stores that buy his new collections and this has given him and the band some stability. Cole Whittle nods appreciatively. ‘We’re on a big tour but it is so expensive. We lose money every night. So it’s great to have the jewellery to keep everything going.’
Back to the music. Semi Precious Weapons are in your face, their music does contain some ‘explicit’ lyrics and they have had to censor their videos for US market as it is a little bit more conservative then they want to admit. Semi Precious Weapons found this with their single of the same name.
‘We wanted our first song to be Semi Precious Weapons. The first line is ‘Can’t pay my rent but I’m fucking gorgeous’. Which is of course in American radio is a huge, huge problem. American TV shows won’t book us. We are proud that we did it, it was the right thing to do. Even with bleeping it out everyone still knows that the main line has fuck.’ Justin goes on ‘The essence of rock n’ roll is dying. The attitude, the excitement and the danger. So for us this was the most dangerous thing we could do.’
Justin has been previously quoted as saying ‘People are glamourous because they say they are’. Really? ‘People say you’re not gorgeous and you can’t pay your rent. Well you are gorgeous if you say so. Gorgeous is in the eye of the beholder goddammit. Even though Gaga is massive in New York and we’re getting bigger, it’s not like people dress like us, people still think we look crazy. We’ve decided we’re glamourous and we are goddammit’ he chuckles.
Cole adds his piece ‘You can decide to be cool, you can will yourself to be the coolest person in the world and if you actually believe it, then everyone else will’. Before Justin says ‘We have proof. Gaga decided that she is awesome but a lot of people still think she’s crazy and hate her but there’s more people that think she is the coolest person in the world’.
Semi Precious Weapons have been friends with Lady Gaga, proper hanging out together friends for a long time. How has being on tour with her been? Justin explains what has happened ‘we were only supposed to be on tour with her for a couple of weeks but Gaga really really fought to put us on this tour. One, because we’re a rock band they were afraid people wouldn’t get it and two because we didn’t have an album out’ Cole adds ‘Or a label’. Justin, deadly serious, then adds ‘I know for sure, the most threatening, the most dangerous thing in the world is a man in heels. People are still upset and are not ready for it, so a lot of people were very nervous to have us open for her but she screamed and kicked.’
‘We were only doing two weeks then two weeks turned into a month, then three months. Then we got the call that we were going to be on for a year and a half. It’s amazing, the fans have been awesome. There are a lot of people who hate us, they don’t understand what a guitar solo is. But her (Gaga) hardcore fans all know us and love us because she talks about us.’
‘No one gets an opportunity to be on such a big tour for so long so that’s an honour and she actually is our friend. We hang out with her every single night. With a friend we’ve had for years. It’s like if Madonna and Axl Rose had been friends and she took Guns n’ Roses on tour before they had a number one song. Y’know its crazy! Running down the halls to hear her new songs she’s recording in her dressing room’.
Cole tells me that SPW are also spending time writing their next album on the tour. ‘If we have two days off we don’t rest, we go to our room and write songs. So we don’t take days off. We haven’t had a day off in thirteen months.
Do the band actually get to see anywhere they are then? ‘Our perspective of cities’, says Justin, ‘is based on a couple of bars, the venue and a rehearsal room. So when we say ‘Oh we loved that city’, Er no its just we loved the rehearsal room.’
The album ‘You Love You’, produced by Jack Joseph Puig, was recorded in three weeks. Ron Fair signed the band to the Geffen family although the contract wasn’t signed until the album was completed. While things have seemed to happened quickly for SPW, they’ve been a band for four years. As an executive producer of the album did Lady Gaga have much input?
‘She wanted to be a part of it to make sure that our album stayed true to who we were. At least, for this first album, really have it sound just like we do live, obviously it’s not a live album, we overdubbed some things but… Obviously she’s a trusted enough figure in the world of music that when she tells people, ‘no their first step needs to be raw’, they are going to respect that’.
‘We’ve even started playing her demos for the new album, you know as executive producer of our life really, not just our album, our career, she’s like a Godmother. I wish we could put Fairy Godmother instead of executive producer.’ Both SPW members are smiling broadly as Justin continues ‘She’s already listened to some of the demos and given me some really really good ideas. I think she’s really brilliant with little vocal hooks, little ideas she comes up with are just so brilliant.’
SPW have made really good use of social media tools and are steadily building up a fanbase in different countries across the world through their personal approach to their listeners. Does being signed to a label have any downsides when it comes to working in different territories?
Justin puts his business hat on. ‘In certain countries our album isn’t even out yet. So we had to go to the Head of the Head of the Head of International to get Cds to sell on this whole tour. It’s out in Ireland, Its out in the UK, Poland, I think maybe in Germany but that’s it for Europe. Normally, if you’re in Norway it’s the Norwegian label that will be printing those Cds for you to sell at that show. But the Norwegian label doesn’t have our Cds. So I think they came from the UK mainly and it was this big deal. We were the first band to ask for that. It also shows the amazing opportunity of being on this tour. Most people don’t get a tour like this unless your album is released in every country’.
Cole adds ‘Another crazy thing to see just because of who we are and what we sound like, different countries are more culturally open to people who are different, people who don’t look exactly like them. Some countries, it’s like pulling teeth to get them to love us and eventually they do but some countries… its explosive and crazy. ‘Justin interrupts ‘Ireland is one of them, the shows are so fun, the fans are just so crazy.’
I point out that our little nation is screwed and people seem to be wanting to latch on to something they can use as a form of escapism. Cole nodding says ‘our band is made for people who are just wanting to cut loose and forget about bullshit’.
Justin pulls the conversation back to the territories issue. ‘In terms of logistics and becoming a successful business, as a band, its still difficult and you have to respect all the territories and meet the different people from the different labels but where the fans are concerned because of Twitter because of Facebook the fans can find you no matter what.
Every day the band do street corner giveaways through Facebook or Twitter, giving lucky fans tickets to The Monster Ball. In Dublin ‘It was insane’. Cole says ‘There was over 100 people there, they all had tickets they just wanted to meet us.’ Justin adds ‘We did an interview for a cute college girl’s blog and she said ‘Well no one really knows who you are here’ but she followed us out to the corner. And said I’m sorry I guess was wrong. It really doesn’t matter if the label is pushing you hard in that country. If you are working hard enough, the kids will still find you.’
Talking to the band, their positivity and love for what they do is very evident. They have broad smiles talking about the fan reaction. Their charismatic personalities put you in a good mood.
What’s next for Semi Precious Weapons? They have a break from The Monster Ball from Christmas to March, during which they plan to record their next album then when they are back on the road in April and May they can ‘plan to take over the world’. You know what? They just might!
The audio from this interview can be heard on Culture Café on DCUfm on November 4th at 2000 GMT