(Editor's Note — exene paloma, who performs under the name pjn x, dropped on Thursday July 20 'noble crimes.' The debut folk-punk album — recorded at The Lavender Room and which also features contributions from Reese Daniels — is powerful, fast and honest, and it's one we highly recommend. We caught up with exene to discuss 'noble crimes' as well the struggle, journey and courage involved in deciding to live an authentic life. We're happy to bring you this thought-provoking interview. And you can check out 'noble crimes' HERE)
1120 PRESS: Thank you for speaking with us. Congratulations on 'noble crimes', your new album which just dropped. It’s excellent and it takes no prisoners. To start with, the first song on the album — ‘rise queerly ablaze’ — seems strikingly personal, and talks about the struggle to live an authentic life and have the courage to be who you truly are. The liberation expressed in the lyrics such as, “I set fire to the world you forced on me, to rise queerly ablaze in my own life,” or “I just want to show you, it’s OK to be the person you’re afraid of letting other people see,” from the song 'pigeon loves bee…' is actually palpable. We realize we’re asking you to boil down the entire evolution of your life into a condensed answer for 1120 Press and we apologize for that. But can you talk about your personal journey and its impact/influence on your art?
exene paloma: Thanks. Well we definitely don't have room for all that, it's been quiiite a journey. But I guess a nutshell version is that just a few years ago I was in the midst of a life I'd created that was killing me. I was married with family in a house we'd bought, in total emotional and logistical chaos stemming from a whole slew of things (financial, familial, and a whole bunch of our own personal shit and past trauma not mixing well with each other's), and in the midst of all that, I started to discover and move more into the queerness in me. I'd always known I was "technically bisexual" (actual phrase I'd use), but had really repressed a lot of that identification and expression and desire for my whole life to a degree that I hadn't even been aware of. It all looks absurd in retrospect of course, but yeah it's incredible how well we can lie to ourselves — helped immensely by the signals and outright behavior of our families and friends, of course. So anyway, the tumultuousness and increasing dissatisfaction in my life started to kind of drive that part of me up, and that just contributed another unworkable element to our situation. Not that my wife and stepkid were like overtly homophobic — it's just that there's a big difference between conceptually being supportive of LGBTQIA+ people and having to face and deal with queerness directly in your life, and especially queerness that's different than the kinds you're used to. It obviously changes things, and in many big ways.
And then the pandemic and shutdown hit in, and we were all in the house together all the time, and, of course, all the George Floyd uprisings and protests were happening and the political climate was so charged — along with many familial and social relationships — and it just kind of all boiled over pretty quickly from there. So on Father’s Day in June 2020, I came out publicly on Facebook as queer and pansexual and left my house. My first 9 months or so on my own (with my dog Marcus, anyway) was of course still in the shutdown, so I had a long time with just work, and then time to myself to explore and develop who I was and who I was becoming. And then as the vaccinations spread and the shutdown opened up, I hit the social world, and I've continued evolving and transitioning ever since — in terms of sexuality, identity, expression, recreationally, politically, and so much more. And with those changes have come many changes in who I engage with (or not), and even how I define and approach relationships of all kinds. Not much is taken for granted or just happens out of convention, or familiarity, or obligation.
So the brutally unhappy masculine-presenting basically-straight married dude who worked a ton and then came home and did his best to bury his dissatisfaction in booze and weed has become (atm) a sober, queer, nonbinary, polyamorous, relationship anarchist over the course of five years or so, and continues to evolve all the time.
And yeah that transition — the experience of my old life and the reasons for my repression, the coming out and leaving behind of all that, the creation of new love and new kinds of love for myself and others, and then stretching that personal liberation into a view of queer liberation as a whole, and what we're dealing with in the macro sense right now (and always have been) and can do about it ourselves — is what this album is about for me.
1120: This album is a really honest piece of work. There’s biting, cynical humor throughout, but the songs are very direct. It also seems like the perfect response to what’s happening in terms of all the ugly legislation and policy being enacted nationally. Collectively speaking, how would you characterize this album as a whole?
exene paloma: Yeah well like I already said, this album is like a story of someone opening their eyes and choosing to act on what they see. Personally, socially, politically, all of it. And it doesn't come without a price. Queer folks are targets, and in a sense, always will be, just by the nature of being "queer".
And for me, "queer" is more than just an umbrella term for non-heterosexualities (though it includes that for sure). It's an overall orientation, an "anti-identity," a stance against the norm. It's actively choosing to move outside of and against the patterns and constraints and inherent dissatisfactions of what everyone takes for granted. And certainly where that involves one's gender expression or public sexuality or stances on public/political matters (or all of those), which it definitely does, there's a certain visibility to it that naturally engenders a retaliatory reaction from the kyriarchy itself and the people who profit from it and protect it — which frankly is most everyone in some way or another, to varying degrees. This album is my own story of seeing that, accepting and coming to terms with that, and leaning way the fuck into it.
1120: Along those same lines, can you talk about the song ‘Eradicate the Straight’? What inspired this song? Was it a response to the Michael Knowles appearance at UB in March?
exene paloma: Well it was certainly titled as a direct response to his one talk that got attention days before he was to show up here. He's not the only one who feels that "transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely" of course, nor the only one with the influence and power to spread and enact that belief, but he certainly said it in a way that was verrry clean-cut and, well, gave me a good rhyme in response. And while I don't actually hold the position that allegedly heterosexual people should be eradicated just for being that way, I did want to meet force with force, and fully support that in real life as well. The shit these assholes say, and these laws that get passed — whether or not they hold up in court —this stuff gets people killed. And if the people in this country were as serious about "protecting the kids" as they pretend they are for political reasons, they'd protect queer kids by shutting these people up, "full stop." And I don't mean by "peacefully protesting" or having dance parties like were put on at UB by local "activist" groups — which is pretty clear in the song, I think. So while it's a song against the Knowles'es and DeSantis'es of the world (and their dumbfuck supporters), it's also a critique of feckless liberal pseudo-responses and assimilationist gays, and a beautiful and explicit vision of a liberated queer future.
1120: Your guitar playing throughout the entire album really stands out, as does your ability to deliver such lyrically dense songs. What’s your musical background/history?
exene paloma: Well thanks. I'm semi-self-taught on guitar. My dad showed me a few basic chords when I was a teenager (see he did give me something besides self-hatred, repression, and anger), and then Nirvana, Rancid, and Dead Kennedys kind of took me from there. In my late teens I played in/fronted a punk band called Shit-Faced, and then played in a couple punk/metal/hardcore-type bands, notably one called Bleed For Me. Since then I've only "played with myself" (haha) and very sparingly for many, many years. In the last five years I'd gotten more into playing regularly at home on the acoustic, and also started listening to more acoustic stuff. Largely folk punk like Against Me, AJJ, Pat the Bunny, etc., and people from bands I used to listen to that had done solo acoustic stuff like Tony Sly and Tim Barry. Laura Jane Grace is a singular inspiration for me, both musically and of course with her transition and subsequent writing. Against Me was the first "folk punk" band i heard (and liked), despite the fact they were so drunk and terrible when I saw them at Showplace in 2004 … (I've since seen them in Toronto in 2019 and her solo twice in the last year or so), and her book — given some of the commonalities in our backgrounds and childhoods and apparently our um predilections — was immensely helpful in helping me process, accept, and try out some things that I probably wouldn't have otherwise. Such a fucking icon.
1120: Not that you’d remember but we met back in April at a Smitten for Trash show and at that time you said you had just returned to writing. Lucky for us… Why and how long had you stopped, and what inspired you to begin writing and creating again?
exene paloma: Yeah I definitely remember. And yeah, well, given the repression and pretense I had going on for so long, you can imagine why not much creativity had been flowing, outside of some attempts at poetry here and there — even when I'd started playing guitar more often, I only played covers, renditions of my older punk songs, and wrote a few chord progressions — no lyrics or full songs really. This past January I stopped smoking weed, and my creativity exploded. It was like a third of my brain turned back on, it was incredible. So what was gonna be a "dry/reboot month" (I stopped drinking a year and a half prior) turned into a permanent thing, because the benefit was palpable and incredible, and not just creatively: I also got back into reading more, and made some big changes in my relationships and relationship structures, including shortly thereafter letting go of some family members and changing my name (which became the song "rise queerly ablaze"). But yeah I wrote some poetry after basically not having written any in 10+ years, and I wrote a song for the first time in about 15 years. And then I wrote a bunch more, and it keeps happening! So yeah it's all about removing the bullshit, right? Whether that's the ways we lie to ourselves, the people around us, or the ways we're behaving. Let go of all the bullshit and there's actually room for something new to show up. Something real. Something amazing.
1120: Is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t asked?
exene paloma: Nah, just thanks for the opportunity to share, and well if you like what you hear (and speaking of Smitten For Trash), come out to the Lavender Room on Saturday 7/29 to hear this shit live, along with Smitten for Trash, BlueRaspberry, and Myles Bullen. It's gonna be a killer show, and probably gay as fuck!