Veteran punk rocker and leader of the band All the Pretty Horses, Venus DeMars has been a powerful force in the Twin Cities music scene for more than 20 years. Her newest album, Flesh and Wire, is some of her most revealing work to date, paving the way for her to dive deeper into her own story with the upcoming memoir, Trouble, a glam-punk/trans-rock love story.
We talked with Venus DeMars ahead of her show with Mayda and Ingeborg von Agassiz at The Cedar on June 29 about her roots in Duluth, reflecting on her experience as a multidisciplinary trans artist, and turning it into a memoir. Read the full interview below and get tickets and more information about the show here.
Can you give us a little bit of background on yourself and your roots as a musician in Duluth?
So Yes, Duluth is my home town. I grew up there back when I was a boy. I moved away when I was 18, then went back, and moved away again, and went back again. Finally I formed a punk band with friends in Duluth back in the 80s. We would head down to Minneapolis to perform now and then, replaced the Replacements now and then to open for The Suburbs and eventually a management company (not Twin Tone) got interested in us. They signed us, but once we relocated to Minneapolis, that management company went bankrupt and we were on our own and the band fizzled after about 8 months. I put out my first album Animal Angst under my birth name: Steven Grandell. It was a DIY Synth-core thing which is now has a following which extends to Germany where it somehow found it's way to, but it didn't do so well in Minneapolis so I set music aside and dove into the art world and filmmaking world, eventually finding my way into the performance art world. In 1988 I came out as trans, but didn't quite have the language for it as we do now. I became known in the art and performance art world as a trans artist and long way round, my drummer from that old 80s band pestered me into forming a new band in 1994 which became All The Pretty Horses. And once that band was formed, I had a sit down with those two original ATPH members, Ed Ford on Bass and Bill Bailey on drums, and I explained to them about being trans and that I would be bringing that to our band as the front person. They quietly freaked out as though I was out. They didn't quite understand exactly until we had that meeting. Long story short, they got over it, and the 'Horses was established.
Some of your newer music relies solely on acoustic guitar and voice. How does this stripped down approach enhance your songs?
So, you mean my album Flesh and Wire I'm guessing. Actually that album is a shift from what I was known for, the full punk-glam band Venus de Mars & All The Pretty Horses. Before Flesh and Wire I'd put out 7 albums using a full band, plus had the rock-documentary filmed of us ("Venus of Mars" 2004 by Emily Goldberg) which followed us on our New York tours and one of our UK tours. I'd been doing solo acoustic side shows now and then since Jim Walsh had invited me to guest for his Hootenanny. Scared me to death! But I did it, and over the years since I've developed a solo-acoustic set of full band songs and some songs written just for the acoustic. After I toured with Laura Jane Grace and Against Me! with my band in 2014, I decided to record those acoustic songs, which I did at Sacred Heart back up in Duluth with my producer Barb Morrison who I flew in from New York where she's located. The two of us mixed and finished that album (Flesh and Wire) in my basement studio. I've discovered a strength in the lyric and spare acoustic guitar which in some ways equals the full band's punk/glam madness. They are two different animals but some songs cross over as both full band versions and acoustic versions; "White Horses" is one, "Mercy" is another. Two distinct takes on the same song, and both versions have their unique strengths and even their own fan base. Some prefer the full band and some prefer the solo acoustic version. I like them both, but since I did that acoustic album, I have paid much more attention to my lyric and vocal work. That whole genre exploration I believe has strengthened me as a songwriter.
You were a keynote speaker at this year's MN Music Summit. What was it like to have that stage to share some of your story?
Well that was during that weird huge final snowstorm, so the whole experience was somewhat existential. So few people braved the storm. I really enjoyed it but I wandered, distracted by the blizzard so I couldn't really dig in they way I hope to with the memoir.
What might readers expect from this upcoming memoir?
It's working title is "Trouble." Will that stick? I don't know, but I'm hoping to have a first draft manuscript done by the end of this year and spend next year looking for an agent and/or publisher and re-writing until the final book is realized.
I chose a 10 year span to make the core of the book: 1996-2006. That was during the filming of the documentary and through it's run up until I took a hiatus from the band. Woven through all that I'm exploring my thought process as a trans rock front person, basically working in the rock world well before that industry was ready for it. It was tough. Lynnette, my spouse, and I went through extremely rocky times both with my transition and with me doing everything I could to make the band work. I became the record label because the industry wouldn't have anything to do with us. I went into massive credit card debt as we toured all over the world and established ourselves in the New York punk scene during the late 90s and early 2000s. We became known in the underground and I think broke quite a bit of ground for Trans performers, but the cost was hard. I got death threats, Lynn and I separated, my band mates struggled, and many of them left when things got too strange for them. I spent a long time in the fetish world. Perhaps I got lost, I don't know. I did what I thought I had to and I wouldn't take any of it back. That's what the book explores. What the world was like back then as a trans-person.
Oh, and the book will be somewhat experimental. It's written in first person, present tense, and no dialogue. Some of it is poetry, most of it essay chapter prose. I'm hoping to do a bit of graphic novel too.
Can you describe your writing process? What was it like to recount your story for a book?
So I try to write every day. I'm not always successful, but I try. I have this crazy timeline graph which I've created in Illustrator. the spine of it is those 10 years and all the gigs we did and where, then along with that all the bits and pieces of experiences I can track down and validate. My spouse Lynette is writing a memoir too covering a similar timeline, though hers explores our relationship more than mine, but I'm trying to keep up. Hers also goes back further to when we were just married.
I've also found my time-line memory is all messed up sometimes. I'm surprised often when I have hard dates to attach to my random memories onto. Things which I thought happened over a year happened over a month. Some things happened in opposite order than what my memory tells me. All of this opens door after door of new memories, which I otherwise would have just forgotten. It's been a disconcerting but also a very powerful experience. I'm hopeful I can capture the madness of it all. And for trans-people especially. I think we forget our own history. Forget how difficult it really was. But we...I...just didn't know. I just did what I thought I had to do and navigated all the meanness, ridicule and dismissals we seemed to get at every turn. It just was the way it was. I couldn't imagine we'd ever get to where we are now in the trans-community. It really seemed inconceivable.
What can people expect from your performance at The Cedar?
Perhaps the emotion I wear from the experiences I've lived.
What feels special to you about being a part of this lineup with Mayda and Ingeborg von Agassiz?
I am super excited to see both of them!
What’s inspiring you lately?
Honestly? Fear actually. Fear of what's going on in our country. At times I just don't know. I feel I need to get the book done as soon as possible. I feel I need to be onstage as often as I can. I feel I have to write more music. And I feel I have to be loud. I have to be out, be trans and be loud, because I just don't know.