Venus Rising: Venus DeMars Looks Back on 2014
To say that Venus DeMars, musician, painter, artist and leader of the dark-glam band All The Pretty Horses, had a busy 2014 would be an understatement. Starting the year off in the City Pages “How They Met” Valentines Issue was just the beginning of a year with both ups and downs.
Since that time, she successfully won her case against the Minnesota Department of Revenue, who had demanded back taxes of more than $2,000.00 over the Departments definition of what constitutes a professional artist. She went on tour with Laura Jane Grace and Against Me, made an appearance in Grace’s Yahoo series “True Trans,” launched an Indiegogo account to fund a new album, her first acoustic release, continues to work on her memoir, and finished the year in New York’s Brandon Saloon and Parkside Lounge playing and acoustic set in an intimate setting. All of this while mourning the loss of her mother in April of this year and unexpectedly ending up in the hospital in September with appendicitis.
As Venus reviews the final mixes of her new, yet untitled 13 track album coming in February of 2015, what could only be described as a time-capsule appeared under the radar in November of this year; Her 2004 documentary “Venus of Mars” was finally made available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video.
Filmed in 2003, originally released in 2004 and directed by Emily Goldberg, the documentary captures the early years of Venus, her band ‘All The Pretty Horses’ and her wife navigating the realm of her transition while fighting to be recognized as an artist who happens to be transgender as oppose to a transgender artist. The film is warm, entertaining, eye-opening to the times and takes a look at gender identity at a personal and professional level in a way that only Venus and her wife could experience.
As she finishes up her year, Venus was kind enough to allow ClaireOverThere an exclusive look into her life past, present and future. I was also lucky enough to speak with Jendeen Forberg, ATPH drummer during the 2004 filming who offered her take on the time period and shared what she is up to today.
The documentary is a great jumping off point as it allows her fans access to a time machine which illustrates how far Venus has come as an artist, a person, and how the perception of being transgender has changed in as little as ten years.
Claire: Whew…So…besides the above, what has Venus DeMars been up to over the past year that I have missed?
You’ve done your research!!! I can’t think of anything else… Just details on all of the above. Oh, and the revenue thing was limited to the State… the IRS we guessed would’ve been next, but I think they were hanging back watching the State audit unfold, and since we ultimately won, noting came from them. Evidently they had no issue with me or my business tax documentation. It was the State Department of Revenue that drove the audit and their accusation of my being a hobbyist instead of an actual working artist.
Claire: Why did it take so long for this documentary to be reissued on DVD and Amazon Instant Video?
The filmmaker had looked into rental distribution previously, but as an indy filmmaker, she was unable to do that without having a major film association and that was next to impossible to make happen. Most of the time was just waiting for Amazon to develop an indy-filmmaker rental option through their site. That took years with us not knowing if it would even actually happen. It kind of took the indy-movement in music and film to happen for them to finally get behind the idea… Anyway, once they finally did create that option, she just had to go through the process of preparing the document and waiting for their approval. That took a fair amount of time as well, but not horribly long.
We’re still waiting on the streaming option to come through, but having the rented downloadable option finally approved is good enough to begin making some noise about it. Thank you for noticing!
Claire: The experimental film and animation that you created for the documentary was ahead of its time, have you always perceived yourself as being ahead of both the artistic and societal curve?
Yeah, I’ve heard that before… I think just being myself was somewhat ahead of the societal curve. I came out to friends and family in the late 80’s, and publicly in 90 or 91. Once I formed “All The Pretty Horses,” I had to sit my band down and explain who I was as a trans-person and that I would be visually and socially quite public about being trans. They felt with it, though I’ve now heard recollections from mutual friends that there was a fair amount of “freaking out” going on with that sit-down talk that I was unaware of. Still, they were good enough to keep that away from me, and I think once we got going it all calmed down with them. In my recollection from back then, they were supportive. As the band continued and members came and went, the new band mates would join knowing who I was and their support of me grew, eventually my main band mates would also be trans-people for a time. My drummer in the documentary, Jendeen was the first. Some of her personal trans-journey is also featured in the film.
Since the documentary, the band went through some tough times and disagreements over direction, and I decided to take a hiatus for a few years. My two trans band mates from that time, continued along their musical direction forming a metal band together. I, on the other hand, continued along in the direction I wanted to go, I continued on from my glam/punk beginnings
Claire: Looking back at 2003/2004 is like viewing a time capsule, have you achieved what you believed you would over the course of 10 years?
Yes and no. I always thought at some point I’d get help. Break through into the above-ground music scene in some way, but I didn’t want to lose control through signing to a large record label. That resolve solidified after we finally got to the point where we had our “big break” interview with a New York music lawyer. My tour manager from then, Madmat, lived in New York. We’d been touring out there very constantly (seen in the documentary,) and had made a nice dent in the NY punk/alt scene from then. That had attracted attention, and Madmat followed it up with this high-rise office meeting just a few months after 9/11 when we had our next NY tour dates. The lawyer was very transparent with me. He spent time with the full band just talking about how much he personally liked what we did, and then directed things directly to me asking if I could ever consider toning down what I did. Maybe pull back on being so “out” about my being trans. He was referring to my performing topless with only my electrical-tape pasties on, and the general fetish aspect of my “look” followed closely by the band as a whole.
I of course said no. I said that was the exact reason he was talking to us at that moment. It was because of who I was and how I was willing to be out about it which had attracted the attention in the first place. He agreed, then added that He’d expected me to answer with a “no.” He said there just wasn’t anyway he could represent us under those circumstances, and wished us luck.
That was it. That was our “big break” and we smacked right into a stone-brick-wall over my being out as trans.
SO, That’s the “No” part of that answer. No, I don’t feel like I achieved what I wanted. I wanted to break through as who I was. I couldn’t understand what the problem was. New York had everything back then. Very fetish-based bands far beyond us… and hard-core metal stuff always pushing the envelope. Punk itself was already out there pushing everything quite hard… I’d imagined we’d possibly be able to leverage some sort of deal I could live with in that meeting. I was frankly bewildered that my simply being out about being trans and refusing to “tone it down” had crossed the line with him, and I guess with the music industry itself.
That still bothers me to be honest
Claire: How have the attitudes towards you and your art changed over the last 10 years?
I think some things have changed, but lots of things have stayed the same. Music-wise I think the Trans aspect is more accepted within the industry. Especially now that Laura came out (Laura Jane Grace.) I think the industry now sees the opportunities that I saw way back in the day. Being one of a kind is a perfect sales pitch. Being Trans is of course one of a kind…though a bit less so now. But still my point is that it’s unique enough for someone in music sales to see the promotional potential.
I always saw that…but the music industry is pretty shy. Quite conservative actually. Back then it was all way too hot. But now that the general public is more understanding, more empathic, they industry sees the pitch potential. When I came out, there was little empathy in the general public really. There was interest for sure, but assumptions of one’s bizarreness was more the norm, and therefore an interest in that is what drove things. Our audience was generally fascinated with my Trans-image back then, but more because it was so “out there.” Assumptions were that a male to female trans-person would be excessively passive or prissy. I wanted to break these assumptions. That’s one of the reasons I took the fetish-dom look for my visual presentation. That way I came from a place of confidence and strength rather than passivity. Also, the fetish community was also one of the few places who embraced difference back then. The Gay/Lesbian community back then wanted nothing to do with us for the most part. Eventually the gay-leather community began to be ok with us. Then slowly the rest of the community came around. But it was a slow process.
I knew I could guide that interest in a perceived bizarreness into a deeper understanding if I could just get them to know us as people, not stereotypes. I worked with my lyric, my performance emotion, delivery, intensity, subject of songs etc. And also in every interview we were able to scare up. I worked very hard at this. Challenged assumptions when they presented themselves. Tackled all the hard questions, the ones the community get’s pissed off at now. I knew people just needed to understand. They were so in the dark about us. The questions were often quite rude and invasive. But they were asked from a place of severe naivety. And I’d usually turn the “News of the Weird” interviewer’s attitude around. Often they’d change their question tactic to more human stuff. I knew they’d follow me if I didn’t play into their assumptions.
Slowly, slowly empathy began to replace those assumptions. In our audiences as well as from our press interest. But not always.
I still get trouble with my topless look in some places. I still get shit from people now and then. Those old assumptions die hard. My visual work, my paintings and drawings involve trans figures. Pre-surgical figures. The penis is still troubling for art galleries and at times the public. I still have my work taken down or refused or on occasion vandalized. I am still barred from being considered for any local arts focus or artist profile PBS programming because of that. I know this because filmmaker friends who work at PBS have told me.
There’s a scene in the documentary where we DO appear in one such segment. We got on kind of by accident. The producer who brought us in feared getting fired because of it. We don’t see the result in the film, but he did indeed get fired because of it.
We still have so far to go.
[Venus and ATPH appeared on PBS’s News Night MN and is referring to KTCA Producer Steve Spencer who appears in the documentary, ClaireOverThere reached out to Mr. Spencer for comment, but as of press time, he had not responded.]
Jendeen’s recalls the Performance on News Night MN:
The staff and the head folks in charge [at News Night MN] felt like us, that we were making a statement and that there would be blowback from us being there. All true. Yet we all definitely shared an espre’ decore, a bond if you will of the few bucking “the system”. I have respect for everyone involved. For in spite of knowing there would be controversy, they soldiered ahead.
They [attitudes] have definitely changed. For me for the best. There seemed to of been a period of adjustment locally if you will. The notoriety of being out as trans gave me quite the boost in reputation. These days, especially with the Wolverines [Jendeen’s Jazz Band] in the Jazz strata and corporate world, I notice only acceptance. More accurately, it is a non –issue. It is more of “can you do what is expected of you.” Which is as it should be.
Claire: Social media was almost non-existent when this documentary was filmed [Facebook launched in February 2004, Twitter in 2006]. Is today’s ability to be directly accessible to any one of your fans globally something that you could have imagined in 2004?
I was online back in the 90’s. Had our band web page up I think in 1995, though it took a number of years before one could have a .com of one’s own, so I piggybacked it off a basic dial-up internet package at first till the .com/.net options came through as a possibility. Once that happened, I secured prettyhorses.net, and eventually venusdemars.com as well, and shifted everything there.
Anyway, yes, no social media at all, but there were news groups, and emailing lists. I would add our convoluted complexly navigated web address on everything! I’d collect up e-mails everywhere, and I sent out weekly e-mail news list updates. I sent review disks everywhere I could. Did all kinds of research on out state/out country music magazines both online and off line, and sent them stuff constantly. I feet up our tours to New York, and eventually to the U.K. All pre-social media, and I collected up e-mails everywhere, and I’d email long, direct responses whenever one of my exist people sent me something. And I signed up for any e-mail list updates I could from the promoters from different states or countries I came across. I kept e-mail dialogues going between them all, stayed in touch with UK promoters, New York promoters, dialogue e-mailed directly at every chance I had. And it worked. It allowed me to pull the band far beyond being just a local band. But it was exhausting work.
To be honest, with all the whining about Facebook and Twitter etc, being too public or whatever… well, I remember the old days, and social media is a godsend!! I never complain. I just try to figure out work-a-rounds for the things I don’t like, and I’m TOTALLY in love with the wide non-privacy aspect of them. I live a very public life. Always have. So I have absolutely no issue with all that. However I do NOT appreciate the new “app agreements” that want to post FOR me, or want to know who I dial up and interact with. That is overstepping privacy in my opinion…but the rest? Bring it all on!!
So long answer short is, yes I could have imagined it. I DID the direct global interaction from the start…Way back before you could even secure a personal .com, but it was exhausting, exhausting work back in the day.
If I had the insight that social media would be what it is today, I would probably be quite wealthy at this time and would be living in France.
Claire: It’s extremely evident in the film [and twitter photos today] that you and your wife are and have always been close, knowing that most of us in the trans community end up divorced, how have you and Lynette been able to beat the odds?
I’m not entirely sure to be honest. But you know, when I came out in the late 80’s, we both just had no idea. We made it all up as we went along. We broke the rules. We ignored what the medical and physiological industry wanted us to do, and carved our own path. And it worked. I ignored the pressure to divorce and go through a full transition starting a new life somewhere else. That was what was expected, and what pushed on us from the medical and physiological people. We dropped out of it all once I’d found a good, kind, and empathetic doctor who was able to help me develop hormonal treatments. We basically just went off the tracks, and blindly fought through every roadblock. Roadblocks within ourselves and roadblocks set up by people around us.
I guess we both felt so alone in the whole process that we just stuck together. We got through it together because none else understood us
It’s been 31 years now that we’ve been married. Add another year onto that for us being together. And don’t get me wrong here, we have had our classic rock and roll drama relationship lives. We have had ALL the extreme ups and downs. Gone through all the loud public arguments, and tears and “Fuck-You’s.” I guess it’s just that, somehow we were the only ones who understood each other. And that got us through.
It still does.
When asked more about that time period and how her marriage has survived, Venus replied:
I’m actually trying to capture that early time when I first transitioned, or began to untangle who I was/am in my memoir…. Its so interesting seeing how things are now with the transcommunity compared to when I started…
I’m finding myself kind of bridging the old-world and the new-world of it all… There was just Nothing back then. Absolutely NO resources… We both felt so lost and on our own. Its SO cool to see partners now really able to tackle everything. Back then it truly was us against the world.
Claire: There was little in the documentary about the UK tour and UK press at the time reported that some venues would not allow you to play because of the “transgender issues.” Was this true?
And some venues who agreed to have us on the first tour without knowing about me being trans, and then refused to have us back for the second tour.
Yes, that happened.
And London surprisingly was quite the challenge for us going out during the day. Jendeen and I both got constant harassment from people passing by. Some quite vehement. From young and old alike. Men and women both. It was tough. We had to wear our physiological armor all the time.
But you know, when we’d perform, we’d win them over…Always.
We’d have people come up to us and just tell us how much they loved us and what we were doing, “Even though” they’d add, “I don’t understand at all.” But they truly were won over.
I KNOW we changed lives on those tours, at least in some small way.
There’s a few scenes from our Northern England gigs which reflect that. One time in particular which isn’t on the film, is after one gig way up north where some of the guys in the audience wanted to take the band out to a nightclub just to show us the city and all that it had to offer, The gigs we did were in Pubs, those all closed early, so these were early gigs… Nightclubs were for dancing and DJ music, not live music. Anyway, we almost went but then some other guys cam up and cautioned that we shouldn’t go. There were impassioned in telling us that we’d get attacked and they didn’t want us to get hurt. The first group who wanted to take us out realized that this was a real possibility, (they said,) and then very sadly, took back their offer wishing us well. I don’t know if it would’ve really happened, but from the way the odd Londoner gave us shit, I wasn’t going to argue the point.
I do not remember specifics, yet that does ring familiar. When something like that happened with us, another result was that we, as the Horses, grew even more determined to change things. It seemed to energize and embolden us to be even more visible and in their faces. Granted there was disappointment and a bit of anger as well.
Claire: Were there issues getting into the country [UK] for you and Jendeen [in terms of work visas and passports] as I’m assuming your gender markers and names hadn’t been legally changed.
And still aren’t..at least mine isn’t. Jendeen and I have moved on our own paths since the film, and I don’t know what she’s done now, but for me, I still have my birth name and gender on all my legal documents.
Yes there were issues and harassment. But at times there were no issues at all. You just never knew. But yes I did, and still DO have issues when traveling. Though it’s gotten better, and I’ve always just put it out there when it happens, saying I’m transgender. Did from the start even when I knew the customs agents didn’t have a clue what I was talking about. And I’d get challenged at times as to why I looked the way I did, “if I enjoyed it” in a derogatory way, etc.
Even once in Amsterdam the customs officer was sure I was a prostitute and because it’s legal there, he wanted to make sure I wasn’t trying to sneak around tax issues. It was pretty insulting once I figured out what he was asserting. I think it brings up another issue of assumption. That of all trans M to F’s must be into prostitution. This has happened to me everywhere. Out of country as well as in country. It irritates me. I see trans-youth, young M to F’s who fall into that trap of accepting limitations just because that’s what’s constantly given. We can do anything with our lives. We don’t have to be relegated to just that.
For me, every time I have flown nationally or internationally, I have never had any problems. If anything it roused the curiosity of Airport staff in a curious and pleasant fashion that endeared them to us.
Granted of the whole band I dressed for comfort as opposed to effect. Venus, Blowtorch where a bit more noticeable. Yet I don’t recall any ill effects that resulted from that. It was at times kind of a shared meeting of the ways.
Not be as arrogant in assuming everyone was watching us. Of course many folks did, yet the majority of people are naturally and understandably focused on their own needs. If anything we added (in passing) something unique for them to share with others later.
Claire: If your 2014 self could talk to your 2004 self, what advice would you give to yourself, your band and family?
It’s kind of what I thought back then… so I don’t know how my 2004 self would take it… maybe something like “Yeah, I Know.” It would be that time is fleeting. There’s so much to do and not enough time to do it all. So do everything you can now. Don’t wait. Don’t put off. Do the hard things, they don’t get any easier if you wait.
For family? I’d say to be sure they know without a doubt how much you love them.
Claire: Any final thoughts about the documentary, the time period it was filmed in and its current release to DVD and Instant Video you would like to share?
It’s odd now to see it. See that old band line-up, my Mom and Aunt alive. Knowing all that’s happened since. But it speaks well to the time. To where I was, and to what I was trying to do with my life. I wouldn’t change it.. though even back then, Lynette and I told the filmmaker she could show more of the rough spots, but she followed her path. I guess, I’ll talk about all the rest in the memoir I’m writing.
It is Important to know that Venus was a mentor for me which will always be precious. I learned so much from her and her patience with me was amazing. To finally be in her band was like a dream come true.
For me and the gang in spite of the challenges there may have been within the group it was never (then) to a point that obscured the reason we were all there. It was a time where we WERE different and glad of it. We embraced it and basically felt, say what you will, but once we hit the stage we will kick your asses. Which was always true.
Claire: In June of this year, you performed an emotional acoustic rendition of “Love Hurts” by Nazareth, does this song have a certain meaning to you or was it just a favorite of yours growing up?
Haha… Yes there’s a story behind that! Well I remembered that song from when Nazareth did it new.. and honestly I hated the song… it was back when everything on the radio was given to us by the big labels… and I eventually just quit listening to the radio completely. .. then Punk and the whole D.I.Y. movement started and I totally got back into music…formed my first punk band.
Well anyway about Love Hurts, So last summer a friend of mind down in New Mexico, sent me a FB message. He and his partner were listening to their personal mix of music one afternoon, and Nazareth’s Love Hurts came on.. (a song they both like,) and then one of my songs came on… I think something off 10 Bones.. anyway, they both thought it was interesting because they both liked BOTH Love Hurts and my song, and they wondered aloud what Id do with that song… and so David (my NM friend,) sent me that story, and challenged me to try…So I didn’t tell him that I never liked the song…and I kind of liked the challenge Because of that fact… so I agreed but “wouldn’t make any promises,” I said…Well, as I started really listening to the Lyrics, I suddenly felt the emotion behind them… and I suddenly really heard the song in a way I’d never done back when I was young and it was first out.
I felt it needed to be in 3/4 (or 5/6) instead of 4/4, and it just all came together so well… It shows you how things change… me and my teenage attitude back then and all… That song is on the new album.. it’s really lovely too.. I have a violin player I know from Sweden guest on it. Its really beautiful sounding.
One more thing on that which I didn’t know until then and after I’d figured out my version of the song..Its actually written by the Everly Brothers!!! Crazy!!
Claire: You are currently in NYC performing at the Branded Saloon, tell me about the room you are staying in that you and your wife painted.
It is lovely. It holds so many memories for me. We painted it in 2002. Right in the middle of the film, and right it the middle of our New York tours when CBGB’s was still going hard, and we seemed to know everyone. Each time we stay there, it’s like going home in a small way. It really has become our tiny New York home. It’s almost like a time-ship, but not quite. This next year we’ll be staying there to repair all the damage since then, re-paint the pealing paint, maybe Lynette will add a few poems, perhaps I’ll add another trans-person. It’s hard to describe. I’ll send some if the pictures I’m taking of it.
There was one story. So, the walls have three large nude blue trans-people. Life size. One with fiery wings, one with butterfly wings, one being saved from drowning by an octopus. All three are like me, in between genders. breasts but also with their penises intact. About five years ago, Lynette and I arrived on a late flight in, and felt happy to be back in our room…then I noticed something. All the penises had been very skillfully painted out. I was afraid the hotel had hired someone to do it because it was too controversial for people staying in the room. So all night I felt horrible, and went over and over in my mind what I was going to say to the hotel management. The people we’d become friends with over the years. The next morning I broached the subject, and they were all stunned. They had no idea it had happened and they all had to come up to see. I spent our time re-painting in all the penises and also writing on the door a request not to alter my paintings, that I was a trans-artist, and if someone didn’t like the imagery, they should just not stay there.
That also speaks to the time. It was tough back then.
Claire: You have a new acoustic release coming in 2015. Can you tell me a little about how this album differs from your previous works and why you decided on making an acoustic album?
It’s a shift away from electric band backed music. It’s very intimate but also just as powerful. I guess, I’d been doing these side gigs for some time now. Solo gigs and often just with an acoustic guitar. Every time I did one of those gigs, the audience would want an album just like what they’d just heard. I didn’t have anything to give them other than my full band albums. Eventually it just felt like it was time to do it. We finished touring with Laura, she’d agreed to to guest with me on a song, and I wanted to get away from the craziness of doing the same thing all the time. So I picked some of the covers which haven’t been recorded yet, and pulled songs of my own from across my ten year catalog and re-worked those songs into acoustic versions, and I wore one new song specifically for the album
At this point it’s a thirteen track album. The initially mixed disks are at this moment going to my four “beta-listeners.” People who’ve known my past work, and I trust to give me their honest opinion. Once they get back to me, I’ll finish it off and sort out the packaging and pressing costs. I want it to be vinyl, but I’ve also been arm twisted into having a CD version as well as digital downloads. I’ll create one more indigo go fundraiser to see if I can get help on the pressing costs. So far the fundraising has been able to pay for all the tracking at Sacred Heart studios in Duluth. An old Catholic Church which has been converted into a recording studio, but the natural reverb in the space is preserved. It’s crazy, like a six second reverb. And I brought my New York producer who’s worked with me on three previous albums in for the sessions just to help me realize each of the song’s potential. I’m really happy with it. And super excited to get it done and out there.
Claire: Do you have a title and a tentative street date on the new release?
No title yet… that’s one of the “next step” aspects, and I’m looking at February for the release month, I’m not sure if it will be in the first half or the second half… I guess that will depend n how fast everything comes together for this final stage.
Claire: Thanks Venus for taking the time to answer my questions
Offline we continued the discussion about our individual transitions, mine starting in 2014 while Venus’ starting in the late 80s, and how the internet directly benefited me by allowing me to see that other transgender people existed. Venus added, “Seeing how kids are free now is pretty stunning…though some things never change… its still hard, and there’s still a lot of hate out there.. We have a long way yet to go, but we’ve also come so far.”
There are scenes in the documentary where the hate was thick and the acceptance was low, but Venus and her band pushed forward and in the process, pushed the envelope of gender expression in art. “Back then” she states “it truly was us against the world.”