Here's a hit interview I did for So So Gay
Alexander by Cezary Zacharew
For the past few years the musical press has been gurgling about ‘the return of women in pop music,’ heralding the rise of the likes of Florence, Marina and Jessie J as though it’s been one big feminist takeover from a male-dominated music industry. But if you think about it, that’s a load of balderdash. While it’s fantastic that the leading figures in British popular music at the moment are mostly women, there wasn’t exactly a male popstar monopoly to break.
Despite the efforts of Patrick Wolf, Frankmusik and (maybe) Mika, there hasn’t been a really preeminent male solo artist since Robbie Williams and before him, arguably, Morrissey. This is because mainstream society still doesn’t know how to market heart-on-sleeve male sexuality. That’s not even considering anything other than heterosexuality: the fact is record executives find it far easier to package an attractive woman singing about love than a bloke. It’s about time for some style and sex under a male persona. Enter performance artist La John Joseph under his new moniker, Alexander. Promising ‘part Morrissey, part Giorgio Moroder, melodramatic and wry lyrics sung baritone over a late-Seventies disco soundscape’ it sounded like just the kick up the backside that male-fronted music needs today. We decided to give him a ring and find out more.
SSG: What are you up to right now?
La John Joseph: I’m busy in in central London, shooting a deck of Tarot cards for a friend. I’ve been dressed up as all kinds of creatures, my favourite is probably Caesar as he’s the most serious out of all of them.
Do you believe in Tarot?
I believe in everything! If you believe in something, it makes it real.
Tell me about your childhood
I never wanted to be a performer as a child - I wanted to be a priest. Until I left Liverpool aged 16 I seriously considered it. But soon I was dating a guy and moved…a tale of ‘hitch a ride on someone else’s credit card’ if you will.
So were you encouraged to be creative from a young age?
We were definitely encouraged in our reading, there were always lots of stories of dragon princes and ice queens – and Catholicism. My personal favourites were reading Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, and there was pretty much no television. It was all about the lyrical .
What kind of performer would you describe yourself as?
Laurie Anderson says that the best kind of performance can be anything, and to me the definition of performance is a genre that allows you to do anything so long as you contexualise it – and that’s what I’ve done. Until now, with my music project, Alexander, I’d wanted to make music but never played music. I was always fascinated by pop personas rather than movies when I was growing up. I first started performing when I moved to London around the same time as being signed to a modelling agency. I hated modelling so much, it made me feel like a piece of furniture, not a person. I like to be a human being, not a mannequin! Performance casting, on the other hand, gave me kicks.
Gender identity features strongly in your work – what do you have to say that is unique as a performer around this subject matter?
My stance on it is deconstructionism. I don’t think anyone comes into this world as a man or a woman. It’s a fabricated notion about whether you should or shouldn’t wear a dress. You’re not born a man or a woman, you’re made a man or a woman. True performance can show just how much of an experience gender is and if you can construct it, you can deconstruct it. On the new EP (Dandylioness) I feel more like a drag king! I’m wearing suits and ties which feels lot easier than performing in dresses, where you feel like you’re exposing yourself. There’s something more sponanteous, as you’re not worrying about your clothing slipping off or possibly being unflattering. It feels sexy in a different way. When I did more female roles or personas I felt like a demanding Joan Crawford diva, now I feel a bit more sleazy. It’s good.
What music by other people do you enjoy listening to?
I like a bit of old Bowie, Roxy Music and Dusty Springfield. I also enjoy listening to soul music, glam rock and some techno. And of course Morrissey! In terms of newer material I like Paloma Faith, as we’re from the same background, and a fantastic band called Rambunctious.
In what direction can you see the arts evolving?
At the moment it’s definitely going to be about surviving the cuts, which are absolutely ridiculous. I was at the State of the Arts Conference the other day and one of the things I learned was that for every one pound invested, six pounds are returned from our arts. It’s catastrophic and idiotic: arts have been around for as long as humanity has. On the other hand, when times get hard people get more creative. In a time of economic instability, when people are pushed to the limit, it can be more innovative. Look at the Lower East Side of New York in the Seventies and Eighties
Asides from being a performer, what other jobs have you done?
I’ve had many jobs, but never a bad one. Aside from modelling, I was a stripper for a bit. I’ve been mostly lucky. My main job since I was 16 has just been doing what I’ve wanted to do. I’ve been pressed for time and money but I’ve always made the work I wanted to do a priority. If a job doesn’t inspire me I’m happy to starve instead. I’m a bit of a stubborn and determined person!
Which city or venue have you found the best to perform in?
That’s a tough one! At the moment I’m really enjoying Berlin. It’s such a classy city, and although the Germans aren’t known for being great dancers they’ve got minimal techno, which is great as I’m making a dance record. New York also has the most over-the-top people in the world. They’re permanantly over-emotive, which is better than performing to a dead room - something I find soul destroying. But it’s never like that in New York: everyone wants to be entertained. Alexander has been nearly around for 2 years but I’ve been dipping in and out of other projects. But now we’ve mixed the tracks and come up with a feasible live show and done bookings at festivals since September.
With Alexander it’s been entirely different to anything else I’ve done before. Less ‘dictatorial’ than previous projects as it’s an ensemble effort. It started when I met one of the collaborators, Malcolm, in New York who said, ‘Let’s make a disco record.’ So I gave him some lyrics and he programmed it. I then met a friend of a friend in Berlin who was a dancer who got involved. And then I met a friend who was a painter who became involved in our make up. Someone else became a backing singer. It all just came together organically. Everyone fulfils their role and we’re all very invested in it. What’s great is, for every show we do we get to do another. I really enjoy singing baritone as a sort of Morrissey and Georgio Moroder combination.
Who do you like and dislike in mainstream popular culture today?
I don’t pay much attention to contemporary culture. I was in Berlin for a while so tabloid culture was lost on me there. I’m definitely a fan of actresses like Fiona Shaw and Tilda Swinton. I met Tilda at a party held by AnOther Magazine and it was like meeting the Archangel Gabriel. Who else do I like? Vivienne Westwood…Julianne Moore. Basically glamorous redheaded ladies! And my nieces. They range from one to five years old and give me style advice whenever I need it.
What achievements are you most proud of?
I’m proud of still being in one piece. Nobody’s shot me yet! I’ve had so many hair-raising moments. I’m proud to be both still alive and not in jail. I would like to be free to have the time and resources to fulfil myself with the projects I want to do in 10 years. I’d also like Alexander to still be going in 10 years – it’s the archetype of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. Posh English boy morose and Edwardian with a touch of melodramatic celebritiy. Being an archetype is something I’d always tried to avoid. I never felt like a quintessential Brit but now I’ve decided that if you can’t beat them, join them.
What upcoming projects do you have planned?
Most importantly I’m concentrating on Alexander. The EP is currently streaming and will be for sale in the spring. It’ll first be available at shows and further bookings. I’m talking to several labels at the moment, but I don’t want to get screwed over by some leviathan. A friend of mine just signed a deal, it was a lousy deal but she signed it anyway. I would like to avoid that. It’s been good to see The Irrepressibles, a 10-piece baroque pop orchestra, do well for themselves on their own terms, so I’d like to be similar to them as all their hard work has paid off. I did the same course as Paloma Faith at Central Saint Martins and look where she is now.
As always, I’m collaborating with other people on their projects. I would like to write a full libretto and I’m talking to a friend about that, hoping it comes to pass. There’s something marvellous about overcoming reality shows. I’m interested in opera as a bombastic genre. Nobody has used it to capture the spirit of the time since Benjamin Britten and there’s definitely a vacuum in the art form. Maybe that’s because over here it’s just for the rich. Over in Germany opera is so much more affordable, which we should definitely adopt.
For more information and to stream the Alexander EP, Dandylioness, visit www.thisisalexander.com Alexander performs at Eastern Bloc in London on March 17.