When Pansy Division formed in San Francisco back in 1991, there were no other gay punk bands on the scene. At least there weren’t when Jon Ginoli came up with the idea.
But shortly after Ginoli formed the band, a funny thing happened: Other musicians around the country decided to form similar queer-leaning bands (like God Is My Co-Pilot), and thus queercore was born.
Even though its members are now spread around the States (Ginoli still lives in the Bay Area), Pansy Division has continued putting out new music, like its most recent release, the typically catchy and lyrically aware Quite Contrary.
Ahead of Pansy Division’s Saturday, April 1 show at Bottom of the Hill, we chatted with Ginoli about the birth of queercore, the current state of the scene, and, of course, Trump’s America.
SF Weekly: The band has been going strong for 26 years now. How has it evolved over the years?
Jon Ginoli: When we began, I wanted the music to be very basic, very stripped-down because I wanted to make sure that it didn’t impede on the lyrics. I wanted it to be straight-forward and simple, and I wanted to make sure that the words were as important as the music. People would, of course, respond to the music first, but then they’ll hear the lyrics and go, ‘Oh my God.’ It was pretty indie-punk to start with, but I think over time it was less punky. Live, it had more of that. But on the records, it evolved into something that that was less punk than when it began, and that was fine with us. It was less minimal and a little more ambitious musically. But we’ve always wanted to write catchy songs, rock them up, and have lyrics that will be interesting and sometimes amusing.
SFW: You were one of if not the first openly gay punk bands, as well as a leader of the queercore movement. Who did you look to for inspiration at the beginning?
JG: One of the reasons I started the band was that I just didn’t see any gay bands. There were a few gay people who were out in music and a lot more who were rumored. But at the time we started, I hadn’t been looking to start this band — I had been waiting for one to come along. When it didn’t, that was the impetus to start the band. The only way I’m going to hear what I want to hear the way I want to hear it is to do it myself. When we appeared, a few other bands appeared right about the same time. It seems like the evolution of acceptance of gay people in our society had evolved to the point where a whole bunch of people had similar ideas and acted on them at about the same time, which was the end of the 1980s and beginning of the ‘90s, when there really weren’t gay musicians out, at least in rock ’n’ roll.
SFW: Were people generally supportive when you emerged?
JG: It was always really supportive. I had the idea to do a band like Pansy Division before I lived in San Francisco, but it wasn’t until I got here that I realized it was possible. I could then envision an audience. What was interesting to me was I thought we’d got the kind of band that would be huge in San Francisco, New York, and a few other big cities, and probably no one else would care. But we found out very fast, even before we did our tour with Green Day, that there were people already listening to us in various pockets all over the country. That was the nice surprise.
SFW: People seem to like the new album, and a song like “Blame the Bible” about the dangers of letting religion interfere with politics, seems particularly appropriate this year.
JG: The irony of “Blame the Bible” is we thought we wouldn’t have to be playing the song for long because, after the election, it won’t be needed anymore. How wrong we were. Although, the song is about the Bible prompting politicians, and Trump really isn’t one of those. But all the people who are have fallen in line behind him, like Mike Pence and all those types of politicians. It’s turned out to be relevant a bit longer than we thought it would be.
SFW: In Trump’s America, do you feel that Pansy Division is an important voice?
JG: We were in Seattle the night of the election.We had that night off. Then we played in Seattle the following day and, suddenly, everything seemed more political. Everything seemed more intense. The show that we played the day after the election was kind of under-attended because people were in shock, they were staying home, they just didn’t know what to do. But the bunch of people that did come to the show that night were so grateful, so thankful that we were there. That is what they wanted to hear and what they wanted to celebrate in the wake of such a defeat. I think it does make us more relevant in that we’ve really staked out some territory in opposition. When the side that you support is in power, it has a different feeling than when the side that actively wants to discredit you suddenly takes the reigns of power. Suddenly it feels much different and it’s more intense.
SFW: What are your opinions of the queercore movement now? Are there any bands that excite you?
JG: I’m a fan of the band Flesh World, they’re a more recent band. I know there’s still activity going on. Despite the changes in San Francisco, there’s still some of the defiance here and that’s what a lot of the queercore scene came out of back then. I’m a big fan of the band PWR BTTM, and I’m thrilled to see how popular they’ve become in the last year or so. They were born at the time our first album came out. It’s a new generation but [it’s trying to do] the same thing: trying to turn something that is a negative into a positive.
SFW: What can we expect from your upcoming show at Bottom of the Hill?
JG: It’s a special show because the youngest member, guitarist Joel Reader, is turning 40. The bill is made up of some of the different bands that Joel plays or played in. He lives in Boston now, but he’s played with us for 13 years. He’s our only straight member. He plays in the Avengers, who are the headliners of this show, and his band the Plus Ones are reforming for this show. So it’s Joel’s night.
SFW: What do you have planned for the rest of 2017?
JG: This show ends a cycle of activity that began last year. Over the past decade, we haven’t been that active except when we’ve had records out. But it’s something that we all enjoy doing and want to continue to do. Considering how much we’ve played in the last year, we’ve had to knock it off for a while. People have other things to do. What happens in a band, especially when you reach a certain age [or] if you’re married, is you’re always saving up your vacation time to do shows. But if you’ve got spouses and partners, you may want to do other kinds of vacations. So we don’t have unlimited time, and we used a lot of it on behalf of Pansy Division this year. So I think we’re going to rest and hibernate before we pick back up again at some point.
Pansy Division plays with the Avengers, and the Plus Ones, at 9 p.m., Saturday, April 1, at Bottom of the Hill. $13-$15; bottomofthehill.com