This is an interesting time for music, pop, gay and queer* culture. Interesting times don’t always mean ‘good’ – while there are some exciting acts out there, there’s also a safe stagnation to some aspects of pop culture. But this is mainly in the mainstream. Interesting can simultaneously mean very good. We all know that ‘online’ has long been the thing. And DIY – with its roots in alternative cultures – is an active and powerful way to get stuff out there that is ignored or marginalised elsewhere. A lot of this work has a very queer bent (pardon le pun). It is prolific, it is diverse, it is thriving and it is quite often very exciting. While the gay and pop press that relies on revenue and circulation figures is suffering (think the recent demise of the LGBT section in the print version of Time Out London), online and offline, self-published and self-started is a positive and increasingly successful way to go. The creativity out there is astounding and promising. But that should be no surprise – we have quite the history of being super resourceful and making our own kind of music when pushed to the corners. One very lovely example of this has come to our glittering eagle-eyed attention: The Back Building. A blog collecting the work and points of interest of one Michael Turnbull, The Back Building is a giddy compilation of gay pop culture from a very determined and enthusiastic source. We mightily encourage you to take a wander round The Back Building and soak up the atmosphere; take a pew here and eaves drop on our chat-ette to find out all about TBB’s author and curator.
What is The Back Building?
Well, I’ve written for several publications over the years and I really wanted somewhere to act as an online portfolio. But I also got frustrated as there were so many people I wanted to interview but every time I pitched them I got knocked back. So I thought, ‘Fuck it, I actually want these interviews for myself.’ These are what I love most on The Back Building.
I’d like to think my blog is not determined by sexuality, but I think I’d be kidding myself. Looking at my stats and the popularity of photos of near naked men, my demographics are nearly all men in their mid to late 20s and in their 30s. There are also a few in their 60s which I get a kick out of.
The Back Building has actually inspired another project which is well under way, but it’s top secret for now….
Tease. You describe TBB as ‘Music, Men, and more’, and your posts are mainly pop and beefcake related – how do these food groups intersect for you? What criteria do you have for your ‘mores’?
Well, I’m not going to lie, I was just going for alliteration there… haha…. it sounded good and I couldn’t think of any other Ms, hence ‘More’.
I do interview a lot of porn stars and the men are ‘beefcakes’, but the thing is I don’t see those kind of men as real. I love them. These kind of gods that get worshipped, stalked, obsessed over for their bodies and the way they use them. But they’re like cartoon characters to me. So visual. We rarely get their personality. In interviewing them I am giving them some depth I guess, but normally they are just 2D characters. So for me, pop music and porn stars kind of work on some kind of parallel. If we’re talking food groups then both are candy.
What is queer pop culture to you?
Queer to me has always involved some kind of political stance. But then the idea of ‘pop’ culture cancels that out. Ha. I studied Film at Uni and I always loved Postmodernism the most. The idea of throwing everything in the mix, ripping up the rulebook (terrible cliche, sorry), it’s that clash that always excites me and something I see in being Queer. It’s an idealism, not something based around sexuality. Unlike Gay pop culture.
Being shallow for a second, I also think Queer Pop Culture is like a narrowed down hipster version of Gay Pop Culture. It’s less Kylie and more Hedwig…
You’ve interviewed tons of important queers – Who have been your faves?
Hmm….I have a few. There’s Andy Butler from Hercules & Love Affair, we bonded over musicals and he suggested a movie date. Two years later I’m still waiting for him to call back and arrange. RuPaul was pretty special. She offered me advice about how to deal with reading at my Grandma’s funeral the next day. Sia is another big one for me. I’ve loved her since her first album. So when we hung out and got to chat that was very special. Then discovering she was bi, part of the LGBT club, was even better. I’m not really a Pet Shop Boys fan, sorry, but Neil and Chris were so great. I kind of forgot to interview them and we just talked pop music. Oh and Peter Tatchell too because going to his flat, meeting him face to face was a real experience. He is a personal hero for sure.
Who would be your DREAM interview?
Well that would be a no holds barred interview with Mariah. I spoke to her once when I worked at her record label. I asked her about her new album. It was very businessy. I would want to ask about Tommy, her early demos that sound like Madonna, that JLO story…so much juicy stuff in there.
The *actual* phone that Michael used to call Mimi
You’ve mentioned in your work that there’s a certain dislike-of/fear-of-camp in some areas of queer/gay culture – where do you think this comes from? And what are your thoughts on camp?
Great question. I came out very late – aged 25. One reason was I was scared of getting HIV, the other was that I was scared of becoming super camp like the TV hosts and soap characters I was being presented with. Obviously I became better educated on the former as soon as I came out. But the latter has taken a little longer to be at peace with.
Only in the last year – I am 33 now – am I truly comfortable with being camp and who I am. Sometimes it comes out, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the situation. I know it is part of me and I embrace that, but like most characteristics they come out depending who I am talking to. I now find camp guys attractive as it shows to me that they have the strength to be who they are.
There is definite ‘campophobia’ in our community and the idea of ‘straight acting’ disgusts me. I think what we need to realise is that being gay does not define a person. There are many different types of gay and that is fine. You wouldn’t say straight people are all butch, so it seems crazy that we are so wrapped up in being camp or not. Sure some gays are, but some are not. Let’s just concentrate on who we are and be happy with that.
Who are your fave divas?
Well obviously Mariah is there. She will always be #1. Beyonce for her music and performance. Grace Jones I love. Tina Turner I will always love. It’s interesting though because most divas I love have an element of strength, attitude, boldness. Whereas Mariah has always been soft, cutesy and girly. I think it was always about the voice with her. But even when she performs she looks in pain as opposed to these other women who command the stage.
What most interests you from the past and how old school do your queer tastes go?
Hmmm…not massively if I’m honest. I think the 80s is my favourite decade. I love all the Warhol/Haring/early Madonna/Interview magazine era. I guess 80s New York is what I’m talking about. It’s always interested me. Warhol’s The Factory, just a collective of his favourite people.
Kind of like a real life The Back Building….
What would your fantasy gig be?
Well my Mum always tells me about the time we lived in Australia and she and Dad went to see Tina in a little hotel showcase. That would be amazing.
Also back in 96, Mariah came over to support the Daydream album. She doesn’t tour much and I was gagging to see her, but it was a Sunday night and I had to go back to boarding school, Mum wouldn’t let me have the night off. I have never forgiven her. But to see Mariah in an intimate venue at the top of her game mid 90s would be incredible.
Mariah or Whitney?
Oh gosh…I have and always will be camp Mariah. But I have come to appreciate Whitney as I get older. All The Man That I Need is one of my favourite songs of all time. But Whitney never had the material. She just had this incredible voice. When she sang it was like she couldn’t hold it in.
When they sang together it upset me as Whitney showed strength and although Mariah opted to show range, Whitney clearly won. She sounds great on that record. And I will always have love for The Bodyguard. Every song she sang on it was incredible.
Miss Ross or Miss Summer?
I used to work at Donna’s label and one of the best things was hearing old stories about her. About how warm a person she was, how she gave someone a small writing credit on a song of hers, how she’d invited him to stay with her in Nashville. I do love her, but my love for Diana runs deeper. I mean The Boss album is flawless. Ashford and Simpson are genius. Although obviously so is Moroder. Oh God, do I have to pick?
No, we’ll allow equal love of both. What would be your ideal date?
It would involve food. Ha. There are a few places I love. Randall & Aubin on Brewer St. La Fromagerie just off Marylebone High Street. The Wolseley. But yes, food is always a winner.
You’re DJing at Debbie on the 8th Feb. We had a blast when we did a set there. How are you selecting your tunes?
I am very excited. I DJ a lot at more pop/dance clubs like Push The Button or Songs of Praise. So I am really excited about throwing some unexpected stuff into the mix. Stuff I think Debbie can handle. There is an old Agnetha song I cannot wait to play. I may have to pull some Stevie out for Sina. I also want to drop a Liza song which is important to me. But we’ll see what works on the night.
We think this is quite an exciting time for women in pop – there are lots of distinct, colourful, strong, creative characters such as Gaga, Katy Perry, Rihanna, Jessie J, Beyonce, Nicki Minaj – what do you make of this era of pop? And where are the colourful boys?
I’ve been thinking about this and I guess we do have boys in pop, we have One Direction, Olly Murs, Rizzle Kicks, The Wanted. It’s just I’m not interested in them. If you are colourful then it is seen to emasculate you. And although One Direction fans love thinking the boys are gay I think that is an anomaly. I loved it when Kele Okereke came out because he was tough, his album was called The Boxer. It’s just a shame it didn’t do better. I also loved the brazenness of Nightwork by Scissor Sisters. The shocking album cover. But again the label had higher expectations and it was seen as a flop. Labels are seeing less and less return so I think they just want artists to play it safe and get that £££. We need more queer independent artists bringing their work to the mainstream.
If RuPaul put you in charge of collating a bunch of drag artists for a UK edition of Drag Race, who would you approach for the auditions?
Well I always love the fishy queens, but I’m not really sure we have many over here. Well at least I don’t know many. I think London has a great alternative drag scene with Johnny Woo, Ma Butcher and that crew. I love them. Gateau Chocolat….
But a lot of our drag queens are promoters or DJs. Jodie Harsh, Dusty O, Lady Lloyd, Munroe Bergdorf. I mean I love them, but I don’t think they would be up for doing Drag Race. It’s different.
What are your fave things about London?
It’s interesting. When I had the corporate job at the label, I had grown so tired of London. But having been away for three months, returned, changed career. I see a different side to it. I love our night life still. It would be nicer if it was closer together but there we go.
I love the mish mash of architecture we have. I think the fact that one minute you can see the stunning Natural History Museum and then see the gherkin is great.
It think the best thing about London is the life it has afforded me. The gay lifestyle is incredible and when I talk to people on my shifts at Comptons who are from out of town, I realise how lucky I am.
Who would be in your dream Girl Supergroup?
One thing I know about girl groups is they don’t last for long. I am happy with my solo singers. I’d rather they focus on the music than the drama.
What secrets are in your hair?
When I worked at Universal, I was privvy to heaps of gossip on the biggest stars. So there are a fair few in there but they need to stay there till I write my autobiography and get that pension.
*The Ethel Mermaids see queer as being many things. As well as its historical and political connotations, we see queer as being all encompassing of the LGBTI food groups. This is why it’s our label of choice. I would say that ‘gay’ can sometimes describe something a bit more mainstream, perhaps, or perhaps not… let’s say gay doesn’t always explain what we’re describing as well as queer does, in some specific contexts. That said, I do understand Michael’s distinctions between the two as defined and discussed by him in this piece. I just wanted to clarify this point as I use ‘queer’ and ‘gay’ throughout – interchangeably for us in this context. Here, I wanted to explain that our own view of queer is wider than that expressed by Michael in this interview. What we love about these conversations on Mermania is that there is a whole variety of opinions and definitions of our fabulous world and culture. It’s not always Ethel’s world view, but part of our project is to present and discuss the many and varied world views of our participants and Mermates. CM