Interview: Justin Tranter Talks Life, Projects & Inspiration
by Daniel Haim
“Musically, there’s a little more cock rock and dance groove than what people think of when they think of glam,” says Justin Tranter. “It’s raucous, hypersexual, easy-to-sing-along-to rock’n’roll, with my self-indulgent self-empowered lyrics.” Voted “Best Band in New York” by readers of the Village Voice last year, Semi Precious Weapons are a band that’s thrilled to say they got to play all-ages gigs at CBGBs, but wouldn’t necessarily feel out of place at the John Varvatos store (which recently took over the lease from the legendary music club). After all, Justin had a make-up artist before SPW had an A&R guy.
The band’s not-so-dirty secret, and the reason why the songs are as accomplished and concise as they are bloody and bombastic, is that all four members are whip-sharp musicians. Tranter, bassist Cole Whittle and drummer Dan Crean met when studying music at school in Boston. Introduced through a producer friend, the foursome joined up for good after they met guitarist Stevy Pyne. “We heard him play and were blown away,” says Justin.
A classic rock obsessive, Whittle encouraged Justin to make SPW more grandiose. “We wanted to make filthy party hits; bring the party back to rock’n’roll and back to New York City.” Whittle says. “The songs Justin had already written were great songs, but they didn’t have super-catchy choruses. I kind of thought, let’s write songs that should be on the radio.” Whittle’s new riffs allowed the band to play as hard as they wanted and the lyrics to be as over-the-top as Justin wanted.
Live, Semi Precious Weapons are in a class of their own. The band is known for their energy filled, circus-like live shows. LA Weekly describes SPW as “gun-blazing bitch-rock. Weapons are a hybrid of Bowie-esque stage seduction and Sex Pistols-style insolence.” Bass player Cole Whittle thrashes about stage with his ultimate fighting moves, while drummer Dan Crean fiercely pummels the drums. “Every time Justin sings I can’t pay my rent but I’m fucking gorgeous, every face in the crowd lights up,” adds Crean. The band has been engaging fans across the country, recently selling out shows at Canada’s NXNE Music Festival. Not to mention the shows in Paris and London where Kate Moss showed up, and The Guardian newspaper called SPW “the most important band in America.”
Part hedonist and part satirist, Justin’s lyrics are both tongue-in-cheek and a sincere expression of his core philosophy. The sentiment of the aforementioned I can’t pay my rent but I’m fucking gorgeous which he sings at the start of “Semi Precious Weapons” has made such an impact on the band’s followers that they now drown him out at the start of every show. Sometimes I bleed because red is a good color for me, he sings in “Rock’N’Roll Never Looked So Beautiful,” a slow-burn epic on the order of “November Rain” or “Champagne Supernova.” “If you decide you look amazing, then you are,” he says. “If you say you’re the most beautiful, you are.” Don’t let the clothes or make-up fool you – Justin is neither goth nor emo (nor a drag queen), just a guy who gets along well with his inner glamazon. “People get so upset that we like ourselves,” he says. “They want bands to talk about how tortured they are, and how much fun they’re not having.”
Justin also fills that role by making jewelry, a business that he only started ‘cause the band needed some merch to sell at early gigs. “My mom’s an engagement ring designer, so when it was time to get a day job at 18, a jewelry store is where I went,” he says. “I knew where I could go in the wholesale fashion district to buy pieces to put stuff together.” His necklaces based on the band’s gun and hearts logo quickly blossomed into Fetty Brooklyn, now a three-tiered line (Fetty, Semi Precious Weapons and Fame) available at Barney’s, Urban Outfitters and Fred Segal, as well as home-base boutique Alter. “We paid for our record with jewelry money,” Justin says. Justin has also branched out into shoes, with a limited edition made for DKNY.
“The cool thing about this band is that everybody is themselves,” says Crean. “Justin wears his high heels every day. It’s not a stage performance choice. It’s what makes him feel good when he gets up in the morning.” Says Justin, “A man in heels and make-up is still quite a shock to most of the world. I think it looks fantastic, some people get angry. Which for rock’n’roll is kind of a perfect combination.” And it turns out Justin is willing to admit that Semi Precious Weapons are like everybody else in one respect. “We’re playing rock’n’roll as good as anybody that’s ever played rock’n’roll,” he says. “We just look better doing it.”
Daniel: How’s the tour been going, how has Europe been treating you?
Justin: Fucking amazing! These crowds are magic.
Daniel: You’re going to be featured on Lady Gaga’s upcoming Telephone video — what’s the feeling like working with the Fame Monster herself?
Justin: She is an old friend and a genius.
Daniel: The accolades is starting to pour in, how does it feel to be positively embraced by this industry?
Justin: It feels like its about time that hard work and talent pay off.
Daniel: “I can’t pay my rent, but I’m fucking gorgeous” — paying rent is not a problem anymore right? What inspired that song?
Justin: The only reason that isn’t a problem anymore is because we have all moved out of our apartments so we can afford touring. That song was inspired by my life…there was a time I was collecting cans to have money to eat, but I still looked flawless.
Daniel: Loved the Semi Precious Weapons video what influenced the video, who directed it?
Justin: Thank you! We just wanted to make a real nyc party video. A video with our actual friends, and our actual original NYC fans. The video was directed by Raph Mazzuco, Nicole Erlich, and me!
Daniel: Who are your major influences, what inspires you to continue doing what you’re doing?
Justin: My major influences are Patty Larkin, Sharon Stone, Lil’ Kim, Patty Griffin, my friends and Bernadette Peters. What inspires me to keep going is myself and my face.
Daniel: Which city are you most excited to visit in the upcoming tour and why?
Justin: Tokyo…because its fucking Tokyo!