Dec 10, 2015
Sophia Cleary and Samara Davis, creators of Penis, spoke with Curatorial Fellow Alessandra Gomez in anticipation of their upcoming performance as part of Synth Nights featuring Champagne Jerry, Tami Tamaki, and Penis.
Alessandra: Can you provide a brief summary describing the creation of Penis?
Penis: The day after I got some bad news, Sophia came over and spent the day with me. We watched the Punk Singer and decided we wanted to start a band. The idea was kind of a joke—we didn’t know how to play any instruments and weren’t sure if we’d ever actually follow-through with it. Our friend, Neal Medlyn, suggested we call the band “Fecal Penis.” It somehow didn’t feel right, but at the suggestion of our best friend Joseph Teeling, we dropped the “Fecal” and became “Penis.” We operated as only a concept (a dream!) for about five months as we began learning our instruments, and debuted Penis with five songs at Baby’s All Right in September 2014, thanks to Anand Wilder and the Seltzer Boys.
AG: The band’s creation is firmly aligned with the philosophy of punk music, which praised technical accessibility and a DIY spirit over musical virtuosity. You both learned how to play instruments—but, for the purpose of bringing Penis into existence. If you don’t consider yourselves musicians in the traditional sense, can you talk about your music as a strategy for art marking?
Penis: Penis is an intervention in our lives, a way out of our everyday roles as art workers and academics. There’s no pressure for us to create in any specific way since we set the bar low and continue to ask each other whether or not we feel good doing it. It’s up to us whether or not Penis has value in our lives. It’s been great learning how to do something new (playing music) and doing it in our own weird way, for example, using vocabulary like “diaper-y” to describe a sound or communicating through different kinds of grunts in our songs. As we said, making a band was sort of joke since we both lacked any musical know-how. (Samara showed people pictures of her bass a month before ever playing it.) We went through all the steps and that increasingly made it feel like a real project. We began making songs, buying equipment, renting rehearsal space, etc. and then we eventually started listening and moving differently, developing a new relationship to our bodies and space.
It’s exciting to be in an elemental mode of creating together. We treat all the moments of not knowing and figuring things out as political openings. We embrace the vulnerable spirit of these openings and insist on expressing them as a way to de-fetishize musical mastery. This is what makes our punk band feminist. We believe that in striving to transform ourselves and dream better we need to remake our value systems. This begins by taking our projects seriously, committing to a shared practice, and relying on one another for support.
AG: This approach allows for work that resists any sort of technical hierarchy consistent with formal training. These interior frameworks sustained through your collaborative process are radical—they do not appear as remnants of an existing skill set. With this in mind, can you discuss the rehearsal process?
Penis: Our rehearsal process is basically an excuse for us to find time to hang out with each other. In thinking about the rehearsal process, it becomes clear to us how Penis is really a project for us to focus on our own relationship as best friends. We use this time when we come together and catch up, hang out, tell stories, etc. We update each other on what happened that week, or in therapy an hour earlier. We express our worries, our fears, our excitement, and joy. All of this informs the music. A lot of our bonding happens during this time. It’s also a space of vulnerability and encouragement—we try out sounds and ideas in front of each other and together. One of us will often come to rehearsal with some lyrics we wrote, which we like, and then we’ll piece together a melody and a rhythm. It is pretty easy going and we are always excited every time we leave the studio.
AG: Does Penis share any ideological parallels to the past or do you both relate to an entirely new generation of punk music?
Penis: It’s a bit of both, I think. We are, in some ways, the most un-punk people in our daily lives, which is what makes this outlet for us really cathartic. We are both deeply obedient, not rule-breakers at all; this is something that has bonded us together for sure. But we are also fiercely political and committed to the process of strengthening our voices and our beliefs, challenging each other and being challenged. That being said, we are of course influenced by Bikini Kill and recognize the legacy out of which Penis has emerged regarding riot grrrl and feminist punk—Sara Landeau, of The Julie Ruin, recorded our album. A huge inspiration for us is Kathleen Hanna, who famously instructed her audiences at Bikini Kill concerts to have girls move to the front of the audience, closest to the stage—a demand that insured the physical safety of both the band and female fans (against aggressive male moshers). We see this spatial intervention as having symbolic effects as well. Bikini Kill reorganized the everyday for their fans, giving way to a politics that was accessible and vulnerable in its becoming. We know that performing as Penis has symbolic, transformative effects for us as individuals, and we want to share this with our fans. We want Penis to be a celebration of vulnerability on stage—that, to us, is our version of feminist punk.
AG: What are the connotations of performing feminist content under a universally male appellation and how do you theorize this relationship?
Penis: Penis is just a good and funny band name and Ebecho Muslimova’s graphic only enhances the joke. The word itself doesn’t imply the kind of virility that other terms for penis have and Ebe’s graphic spells that out—there’s nothing inherently powerful or even male about so there was room for us to play with its meaning. As the joke fades, people begin to realize how they are performing language as they discuss our band, as they discuss us. We get to decide what language we use to describe ourselves. Penis can and will continuously be defined by individuals and groups however they desire. We respect and honor this radical tradition and believe that this practice is feminist.
Photo by Iki Nakagawa