In Conversation with Jake Shears and Rod Thomas

Scissor Sisters meets Bright Light Bright Light in this chat about politics, music, and otherness.

Jake Shears is the frontman of the iconic New York pop-rock group Scissor Sisters; Rod Thomas is a Welsh-born, New York-based pop artist who performs as Bright Light Bright Light. Here, the two friends talk the state of pop music, how they’ve been keeping busy in quar, and BLBL’s forthcoming album Fun City.
— Annie Fell, Talkhouse Senior Editor

Rod Thomas: Good morning. How has your week been?

Jake Shears: I’m good, Rod, just kind of had my hands full, which has been good. My studio room is just covered with ripped-up pieces of paper and notebooks everywhere. It’s been nice to be pulled into working and really enjoy it. Sometimes it’s frustrating but it’s definitely kept my focus and attention. How about you?

Rod: Kind of the same. I’ve had lots of little background things to do because with the song and the album coming out at least I’ve got a task every day, and I find that really helpful to keep me buoyant and as productive as possible. Although just before the lockdown kicked in I ordered myself a diary and a year planner. That was the most pointless thing that I’ve ever bought. It’s just sat in the corner.

Jake: They say that it’s a great time to keep a diary.

Rod: “Monday, had some gin and tonic. Tuesday had some gin and…”

Jake: Do you keep a journal otherwise?

Rod: I don’t keep a journal, but I’m one of these people where like, probably from the decade that I grew up in, if I don’t write something down, I don’t remember it. So I like to keep a diary of what I have to do each day or each week, physically written down. So my apartment has mood boards and printed-out calendars all over the walls just to keep me sharp.

Jake: You sort of need to put some stakes in the ground physically that you can actually go back and find and that sort of bring back what you were doing at a particular time or in a particular moment.

Rod: It’s really weird being a creative at the moment, because on one hand, with all the free time of not having to do the traveling or whatever else, you’ve kind of got infinite time to run wild with your ideas or whatever. But it’s also kind of impossible, because you don’t have many of those stakes in the ground that you used to have. I’m imagining this is probably the longest you’ve been in one place for one time for quite a while.

Jake: At least 16 or 17 years.

Rod: Yeah. And I’m usually working at home in the day, but there’s a tour or a DJ set or something coming up. So it’s really weird to just be in the same room or the same building without these little stepping stones. It’s really easy to just feel uninspired.

Jake: I think that’s definitely a part of it. As far as writing is concerned, what’s been coming out of me has been very broad lyrics. I haven’t had any sort of weird idiosyncratic ideas. What are your reading habits?

Rod: I’ve been reading books by or about artists that I like at the moment, so I’ve been reading Elton’s book and I’ve been reading Life With My Sister Madonna by Madonna’s brother, Christopher Ciccone. It’s such a trip. It’s, it’s really amazing. It’s just like delicious trash. I’m obsessed. I really don’t want it to end. I’m just dragging it out as long as possible. But I’m not good with letting myself get lost in a book unless I’m traveling. Because I kind of feel like my brain is looking around the room like, “Oh, there’s an instrument, I should be making some music. Oh, there’s some records or maybe I could do like a mix or a DJ set or like, oh, there’s the calendar and I’ve got that deadline.” I’m not good with free time at home. 

Jake: That’s part of that weird pressure of just being home all the time. There were some weeks where it was Animal Crossing and Zelda and just channel surfing. And now it’s kind of gone the opposite where I just feel like every hour of the day, there’s a pressure to do something.

Rod: It’s weird because people keep saying every artist is kind of in the same boat. And they are, but they’re not. We’re not really in the same boat as Dua Lipa, who’s on like the crest of her wave, and we’re not on the same boat as somebody just starting out either. People in the middle ground are in such a weird position where you’ve got a lot of stuff to share, but people are consuming the same five artists, I think.

Jake: I think that’s been a problem in music in general for a while. It’s been a good decade of the sort of middle class of pop music really being eradicated. I think streaming has a lot to do with that. A few people take up a big portion of the pie, and everything else is niche.

Rod: In theory, we can all go online and do shows and DJ sets and live stream and whatever, it’s kind of like when streaming started. There’s just so much content online, it’s difficult to have something that’s interesting for you and for the people that care about you. And something that’s going to get noticed above those same five artists like who are also doing a live show with tons of money that makes it look like a studio production.

Jake: I’ve done it a few times, and I find it really unsatisfying. I’m doing one tomorrow out of LA that’s an interesting sort of performance thing called Uncabaret. It’s mostly comedians and they do have a musical guest and it’s something that’s gone on in Los Angeles for a long time. And you know, Sandra Bernhard, who’s one of my heroes is doing it. I’m gonna sing a new song that I’ve not ever sung before. I really don’t have much of a desire unless it’s something really special. I get more out of just going on Instagram live. I find that more gratifying than performing, you know, to the phone.

Rod: Without that interaction element, there’s no point. We don’t do a live show and perform at an audience and not pay attention to how they’re reacting. It’s strange to feel that lack of connection.

Jake: With this new record, which is amazing by the way, I want to talk to you about your feeling on putting it out now. I find that putting a record out is really depressing because it’s something that you hold close to yourself and when you put it out it’s just not yours anymore, you’re letting it go. Do you ever feel that way when you’re putting music out?

Rod: I really hate release days. I find them so depressing and so stressful because you spend all these hours in the studio working on a song, all these months working on artwork and the production and the mix and everything. And then on the release day, something always goes wrong. There’s always some kind of blip, and all you get is like the people that can’t find what they want. 

The thing that I really loved about your first record with Scissor Sisters, which is one of the things that inspired me to have a go at music, that you managed to make this crazy magical ride while your fans came along with you. And as the record built, you made this community and had this really weird, wonderful group of fans by the time the record came out, which is what we planned to do with this album. It’s about the LGBTQ+ community, and there was this plot that I had in my mind where we were gonna do little shows, like teaser shows, through different cities to test out the songs with audiences. And play multiple Prides over the summertime so that by the time the record came out, it had been present in the queer community for like six months, so that it really had that storyline and people understood what it was about. And now we don’t get to do that. This record is about that community, and I can’t take it to them. And I can’t share it with them in the way that it was envisaged for like a year and a half. So I’m trying to shift the focus a little to see how, in these months where we don’t get to physically be together, we can remotely create that community.

Going back to what we said about the couple of artists that take the main piece of the pie and then everyone else is sort of like, floating. You know, those five artists are like Kate Winslet on that wooden door and Titanic and the rest of us are… 

Jake: What’s so great about what Bandcamp did last week with all proceeds going to the artists, more stuff like that needs to happen. I love Spotify for certain things, and iTunes. They really enrich people’s lives in certain ways with music discovery, but it’s devalued music in a way and it’s taking money away from artists that used to be there. And with our live performance really being taken away, I feel like musicians are really left high and dry. How do we bring monetary value back to the music itself? And now we’ve got a president that wants to shut down the Postal Service.

Rod: It’s mind blowing. One of the things that I was really excited to do for this campaign was to work really closely with indie music stores to drive awareness of how important the independent record stores are to the music world, both for the fans and for the artists. And now we don’t even know how many of those can survive the lockdown. So you’ve got like that huge chunk of the music revenue world potentially being lost as well.

Jake: I want to talk about your record for a little while. When did you start writing it? And what were you thinking about when you started? I hear a lot of different influences. And of course the whole point of the record is sort of the influence from fellow gay artists and queer artists…

Rod: When I moved to Manhattan, which was like May 2018, it was just kind of cool living in the neighborhood where I used to have to… I used to get on the subway and then come to the East Village. And when I first came to New York, the East Village was associated with Boiler Room and Eastern Bloc and all of these gays like mincing around the streets and it was just so cool and so inspiring. So when I moved here, it really warm weather. It was boiling hot in the apartment. I felt kind of amazing living in Manhattan, and surrounded by all of this queer interest. The apartment that Bette Midler lived in in Beaches is like two blocks away.

Jake: Amazing.

Rod: It inspired me to write an album based on the feeling of being an LGBTQ person in a city. And what it’s like to have so much opportunity and so many exciting things, but also know that there’s just so much danger for us still. So it’s an album that celebrates who we are, who you are, what you love, and how you love, but also is kind of aware of like, it’s still not the norm. We still aren’t really accepted. We’re kind of like the people scuttling around in the sewers, but the sewers are neon and fabulous.

When we were growing up, we’re not that far apart in age, I’m sure we had like the same touchstones from like our teens and 20s. There weren’t enough role models for us, who were people doing music, acting, dancing, whatever. When I was growing up the people I knew were gay were like Elton John, Andy Bell, k.d. lang, Pet Shop Boys, Bronski Beat, and I didn’t feel like any of them. I didn’t feel like I looked like any of them. I didn’t feel like I could relate to them because they were these fantastical, flamboyant beings who seemed to have come from a completely different planet. Whereas if you see people like Will Young, or anybody that just doesn’t look like some space-age being, that’s super important to young queer kids. Gay people come in every different flavor, like straight people. It would have been useful growing up to have had out people in many more different industries.

Jake: I think we both have a kind of nostalgia and an affection for the day when pop stars could be grown ups. I wonder if that resonates with you, or if that’s something that you think about it. I want there to be a place for adults making pop music.

Rod: Especially when it comes to the narrative of the story telling and the kind of references that you have in songwriting. I don’t really feel like I need another 21 year old talking about the hardships of relationships. I love the perspective that comes with a slightly older voice in pop music.

Jake: I find myself nostalgic for those days when I feel like there was there was more of a space for older people in pop. Maybe I’m wrong, I could be totally talking out of my ass. 

Rod: I’m not an ageist. I don’t mind people being young. I’m open to youth.

Jake: No, no, no, no, no. The one thing that I don’t buy is when the next new big thing comes out and it’s like, “Can you believe she’s just 14 years old?” And I’m like, yes.

Rod: Yes! She looks like a child. The only 14 year old I want to hear sing is JoJo when she did those songs, that was amazing.

Jake: One of my favorite songs on your new record is “These Dreams.”

Rod: Oh yeah, I wrote that with Babydaddy, with Scott [Hoffman].

Jake: I really love that song. I find the lyrics really poignant. And I wanted to talk about what they mean to you, that opening statement at the top of the song. There’s this beautiful sample

of a speech..

Rod: We were sitting around in his studio one day, and I’d kind of decided that I wanted to write something very queer focused. I was just really angry at a few people and about the fact that you don’t really get to complain in public media if you’re the “other,” you’re just seen as a snowflake. But white straight people get to complain all the time. And so the song is really about how it’s very hard to be completely happy for the white straight man’s success when you’re not really allowed to celebrate yourself in mainstream culture without looking like you’re being contrary, or you’re being too much. So I kind of chose that Sylvia Rivera quote to kick it off, because it’s like, that was so long ago, and that was a black trans woman making waves that people just kind of forgot that that happened, you know, especially white people. And it’s an important thing to say.

She’s talking about gay rights and gay power, and why she’s out there fighting for gay rights, and why it’s important to believe in them. We still don’t really have equal footing. It’s a message that decade after decade has resonated and still resonates and still probably will resonate in the future. I try very hard to be an accepting and tolerant person and celebrate other people’s successes, and to look at the good in life. I try to be very optimistic. But there are moments where you look around and there are tiny little things that should have been celebrated that aren’t. Or terrible injustices that should have been swooped down on and quashed in a second, like the people that have been murdered very recently with no justice served to it, just because it’s not somebody white and straight in the mainstream. There are all of these events that happen all the time, like all the trans women that are killed within the last year in America and like, how is that not a point of conversation? Why is it only a point in conversation with people online and their friends who already care about it?  So that’s what the song is kind of pinned on really, which isn’t what we set out to write. We were going to try and write like a kind of faggy dance song and ended up making that track and I really loved it. I struggle with being political. I think sometimes because I don’t feel like I’m well read enough or have earned the right to be a mouthpiece. I do feel like there was no way I could make this record without touching on certain really important political or socio political points.

Jake:  I think it’s a constant process of examining yourself and examining your views and your beliefs and how you react to things and what you’re paying attention to. I think it’s a daily questioning and an examination of yourself.

Bright Light Bright Light has been a staple of the international LGBTQ+ music scene for over ten years, having released three prior albums and touring as both a solo artist and as support alongside pop royalty like Elton John, Cher, Erasure, Ellie Goulding, and Scissor Sisters. He also collaborated with Elton on his 2016 banger “All In The Name” which he also performed with the music legend on The Graham Norton Show.

His new album Fun City is out September 18 on his own label YSKWN!, in partnership with Megaforce Records and The Orchard, and it will serve as not only a stellar collection of expertly crafted ’80s-inspired dance-pop, but also as a musical love letter to the LGBTQ+ community. The album boasts a veritable “who’s who” of LGBTQ+ major-players and allies who serve as collaborators, including (in alphabetical order by first name) Andy Bell (of Erasure), Big Dipper, Brendan MacLean, Caveboy, The Illustrious Blacks, Initial Talk, Jake Shears, Justin Vivian Bond, KAYE, Mark Gatiss, Niki Haris & Donna De Lory, and Sam Sparro.

For the past four years he has curated, hosted and served as the DJ for regular afternoon dance parties (which he affectionately calls the “Romy & Michele’s Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance”) at Manhattan’s Club Cumming and Brooklyn’s C’Mon Everybody. Aside from using his music as a powerful platform for equality, he has also actively fundraised for The Trevor Project, Ali Forney Center, Hetrick-Martin Institute, ACLU, and Elton John AIDS Foundation over the years.

(Photo Credit: Warren Piece)