Discussing Their Performance Out There
"a sci-fi feminist rock opera"
As a fanatic of all things moody and colorful - it was no surprise that I jumped on the opportunity to experience the performance Out There when it came to tour in my town of Oklahoma City. The creation by performance art duo Princess is a sci-fi genre bending sensation that is as visually stimulating as it is thought-provoking. My multimedia addicted personality got sucked into the live narrative. Their video album accompanied by the visual projection had me in a hypnosis of creative fever. Alexis Gideon and Michael O’Neill have collaborated with the forces of TEEN, JD Samson and visual artist Jennifer Meridian to explore the gender roles of men in today’s society. Anyone who enjoys themes of culture, LGBTQ+, space exploration, experimental music and vibrant colorful energy is encouraged to visit the website and social media pages of Princess. You will be all the better for it. Princess fills us in on their creative process and the touring 411.
Out There was performed on 40 stages all over the U.S. We were lucky enough to see your performance here in Oklahoma at 21C Museum Hotel. Welcome! First we have to ask, what did you think of OKC? (Always glad to have thought-provoking performance art come through here!) We loved OKC!! We were very enamored with the plains in general. We drove from Nebraska and through Kansas to get to Oklahoma City. It was super chill and peaceful to drive through all that open space. But OKC left an impression on us, as did other tour stops like Omaha and Baton Rouge, that our coastal perceptions of middle America are a bit narrow. Of course the politics can be pretty bad in red states, but its refreshing to see awesome art scenes and counter culture everywhere. We have so much respect for the people in these alternative scenes who have a harder fight but are such a strong part of the resistance.
It’s obvious that you two work very well together. Tell us a little about the origin of Princess. During our time at Hampshire College (MA) and Wesleyan University (CT) we came to know each other through a mutual friend and instantly found a musical connection. But since we lived in different states .. we never rehearsed! We would book performances at one of our colleges and then improvise them around a conceptual idea. For example, we did one based on the TV show “Saved By the Bell” where all we came up with before the show was a list of song titles like “See you later AC Slater”, “Chillin’ at the Max” or “Zack Morris Wrecked His Dad’s Ford Taurus”. As we performed them live we made up the song on the spot. It was a bit nutty and immature but it was a lot of fun! From there we moved to Chicago in 2003 and that’s when we formed Princess - a cross-dressing performance art band that melded musical genres and questioned masculinity. It was the first time we began working with composed material. We performed until 2006 when we moved to separate coasts and pursued different projects. Michael moved to NYC and joined the indie-pop band Ladybug Transistor and then formed MEN with JD Samson. Alexis moved to Portland and began working on a series of animated video operas, which would lay the foundation for how we created Out There.
How did Out There come to be? What’s the creative history here? Well .. after a brief 12 year hiatus .. we began working together on an informal instrumental music project. Again, living in separate cities we had to get creative with how we work together. This time we sent each other tracks back and forth over email, composing the music instrument by instrument. It was a unique recording experience. Since the other person is not physically there you don’t have anyone’s critical ears on your part and you learn to work through your own stubbornness through a process of acceptance. Of course, some tracks come in and you think “This is amazing!” and you are immediately inspired to add the next instrument, but other times you have to move past your own vision for what something ought to have been and work with what you were given. After the “Instrumentals” project, we decided Princess was officially back and we began working on a bigger project that would eventually become Out There.
What inspired the making of Out There? Were there any back-stories that influenced its creation? As we began working on new music in 2016, Trump was elected. We both attended the Women’s March in DC in January 2017 and then the #metoo movement happened. All of this political and cultural angst seeped into our music and when we finally stopped to see what we had created, we noticed a thematic thread. It was important for us, as men, to process our feelings about these culturally significant moments. Princess has always been an exploration of masculinity, but we wanted this new piece to dig deeper within the context of women’s issues and the cultural reckoning of misogyny. One of the most important things we wanted to address, is that a patriarchal construction of male ego leads to a toxicity that produces violence. And that all of that noise drowns out the voices of women. At the end of each live performance, Princess lays down on the ground and stops playing the music while the voices of TEEN are heard and Jennifer Meridian’s visual representations of the Divine Feminine are shown. When Princess finally “wakes up” we put down our instruments and hold up cardboard cutout ears (also made by Jennifer) while JD Samson and TEEN sing the song “Rise Up” - the women’s call to arms. Princess learns to listen, and that the change they are looking for isn’t something they can actively bestow on everyone else, it’s something they have to find within themselves. By letting go of their own egos, they learn to see the power of the Divine Feminine.
Do you each have a specific role when it comes to making music and art? What would you say are your individual and collective strengths? Alexis is the video artist. We both come up with the ideas and concepts but he is the one who can produce, edit and creatively manipulate any image. Michael often sees a big picture concept and is really good and drawing the connections between the big ideas and the process itself. Musically, we both play all the instruments and write the songs together. Alexis has more of an avant-garde and experimental approach which is well balanced by Michael’s pop sensibilities.
What can someone expect to see at one of your shows? Out There is as a sci-fi feminist rock opera. There is a big video projection of an animated narrative where a fictitious version of Princess foolishly attempts to save the Earth from it’s misogynistic tendencies by searching for a better planet in outer space. Our real selves perform on each side of the screen. We wear costumes to express gender fluidity and to challenge the notion of masculinity and gender conformity. Alexis often wears a pink tutu (to compliment his moustache) and Michael often wears a blue leotard and pink tights!
During Out There you perform in front of a vividly explorative animated music video. What was the process like with animating the visuals? Also curious about those outfit changes! We had a lot of fun with the costumes!! Trying on women’s clothing at Forever 21 was definitely a trip. We also shopped on St Mark’s in NYC to get our tights and wigs. People loved it when we would come out of the dressing rooms to look in the mirror - it was nice to feel supported and not laughed at. To get the sudden outfit changes we would shoot photos of ourselves in the same positions with different clothes on - and then spend countless hours video editing! Everything was shot in front of a green screen. To get our “sets” we combed through archival photos from a public domain library released by the New York Public Library and NASA to find images that we could use as backdrops to the animation.
Out of all of the tracks on Out There, which are your personal favorites? Alexis’ favorite track is “Out There” because it’s the heart of the whole piece. It’s the moment in the performance where we lie down. It’s the moment where it is revealed that the adventures Princess thought they were on were only in their minds. All the musical themes that occur through the whole piece occur in that song in a flashback montage. It’s also the moment where Jennifer Meridian’s artwork and TEEN’s voices bring the Divine Feminine to centerstage.
Michael’s favorite video in the piece is “Phone Zone” where we see faces melted and sucked into cell phones. A war of “hearts” and “likes” breaks out and Princess narrowly escapes. Although it feels slightly tangential to the main theme of the piece, our cell phone addictions are another example of how we are all trapped in a societal condition that we need be more aware of and eventually break free from - not unlike patriarchal misogyny.
What do you hope your audience/listeners will gain from the experience? We want women to full supported, but we also hope to reach other men through this experience and get them to examine their own behaviors. All of us have been conditioned to participate in the patriarchy. We have to actively look for it and reject it if we want to push for an equal world. We also want to inspire more men to speak out for gender equality. Just recently we witnessed many states passing anti-abortion laws that are devastating to women’s rights. One of the things we noticed in our social media feeds was women asking - “Where are the men?” Many people assume feminism to be a woman’s issue - but they shouldn’t have to fight for it alone. We live in a misogynistic society and to leave women to fend for themselves for basic rights feels shamefully passive.
Collaborators JD Samson, visual artist Jennifer Meridian and the band TEEN have their own part in Out There. How did these partnerships come about? We’re lucky to call of these amazingly talented women our friends and we’ve known each other through various ways for many years. Once we landed on the concept of “Out There” and were working through the material, there became obvious points at which we needed to include women’s voices. The song “Rise Up” was originally designed to be the song of the woman’s march, and JD was the perfect person to lead that charge. We could see the trio of TEEN’s voices and lush harmonies perfectly representing a version of the Divine Feminine character. And the concepts of the Divine Feminine were already represented in Jennifer’s art so it was an obvious choice for us to incorporate her work.
What was the most rewarding quality about working with others in the creative community? Well first of all, it’s not lost upon us that we are two white men making a statement about misogyny in a time where women’s voices should be the most prevalent. We try to make that self-awareness clear. We needed to bring women into the process, get their reactions and invite their contributions. When TEEN came into the studio to work on the song “Time For the Men To Go” they completely re-invented the vocals from a demo that we had created. Similarly, they re-wrote the 3-part harmonies for “Out There”. Although we felt attached to the demos that we had created ourselves, we embraced their new ideas, which were much more original to themselves and frankly much better. With JD’s song, she asked us if she could scrap our demo entirely and write a song of her own. In both cases, we were challenged with the idea that is core to the piece itself - that men need to let go of control and ego and allow more space for women’s voices to take precedent.
What have you enjoyed most about your national tour of performances? The best part has been the surprise cities, like OKC! Omaha, Rochester, Sarasota, Baton Rouge, Indianapolis, the list goes on. The big cities are fun and exciting, but we were so inspired by the reception in these smaller cities. The audiences were so engaged, the Q&As were thoughtful and super cool. An older gentleman in Omaha even asked Michael how to tuck! All the different reactions helped to challenge us along the way and shape our own perception of what this is all about.
Were there any musicians, filmmakers or artists who inspired the creation of Out There? Prince, Queen, Phish, Kendrick Lamar, TLC, Le Tigre, Ween, Andy Warhol, Meredith Monk, Missy Elliott, Nine Inch Nails, Flaming Lips, Herbie Hancock, Outkast, Grace Jones, RuPaul, Chantal Ackerman, David Byrne, Pink Floyd, Andrei Tarkovsky, Key & Peele, Tracy & the Plastics, Fritz Lang .. (we could keep going …)
When you aren’t creating music, what are you doing? MUST ALWAYS BE WORKING!!!! JK, no seriously. We actually are workaholics, but .. um .. Alexis loves playing Toe Jam & Earl and Michael can often be found running over the bridges in Brooklyn. That doesn’t sound very exciting does it??
Any special announcements for your fans? We have an interim project that we are already back in the studio working on now. It will be a spin-off in a sense, that revolves around the concept of the “Phone Zone”. That’s all we can say for now. Beyond that, we will be begin working on a second feature length concept video album that we intended to release next year. Oh, and we might be going to China?!
Where can we see you now? Plans for Princess’ future? Please visit our website, sign up for our mailing list, follow us on Instagram or Facebook for updates. We are now planning a second tour of “Out There” for the fall!!