Dare to be filthy

Semi Precious Weapons celebrate partying and poverty
By REYAN ALI  |  June 28, 2010

DISAPPOINTED! “I thought girls all wanted to be Debbie Harry in New York City,” says Justin Tranter (front), “but they actually wanted to be Sarah Jessica Parker.”

After a few tours, any rock act worth its decibels should be able to name a couple of its wilder shows with little effort, but Justin Tranter’s pick for most memorable Semi Precious Weapons concert sounds especially libertine. “We played a show at the Dirt Bar in Houston,” says the waifish, tarted-up firecracker of a singer over the phone from LA. For a reason he doesn’t explain, the self-avowed garage-glam outfit has a substantial fan base among Texas strippers, ex-strippers, and “all sorts of ladies of the evening.” The Houston dive adored SPW so much that it rented a sound system and built a stage for the performance, installing monkey bars on said stage. As Tranter remembers it, the scene at showtime was “a room full of insanely beautiful blonde strippers that desperately wanted to look like me, and a bunch of dirty rock dudes. We stayed in the bar for six hours after our show. That was the most amazing rock-and-roll experience I’ve ever been a part of.”

In his excitement at recounting the event, he forgets to talk about the actual performance. But given that SPW are known for going over the top — a male lead singer in pantyhose, manic dancing, pouring champagne into the audience, histrionic guitar solos — the on-stage details are probably just a blur. And the Dirt Bar show wasn’t that crazy. “It’s very par for the course for Semi Precious Weapons,” says Tranter, with a laugh.

Before 2006, the band were a more sober bunch. The entire original line-up of SPW studied at Berklee College of Music. (Tranter: “I have a degree in songwriting, the drummer has a degree in classical composition, and blah, blah, blah.”) But after they moved away together to pursue life as a working band, their “serious, intellectual” approach was quickly discarded. “We got to New York and were shocked at how boring it was,” Tranter remembers. “I thought girls all wanted to be Debbie Harry in New York City, but they actually wanted to be Sarah Jessica Parker.”

Reacting to this perception, SPW began championing pointedly crude rock inspired by the base sounds they grew up with — Guns N’ Roses, AC/DC, Metallica — and emphasizing theatrics as well as sonics. The band aren’t about straight-up glam revival. (Tranter says he hadn’t heard of T. Rex until recently). Rather, they, and some of their NYC peers (like Lady Gaga, for whom they open at the TD Garden next Thursday and Friday), push “filthy glamour” — something “a little filthier, poorer, and grungier than the glam rock everyone thinks of.”

Speaking of “poorer”: finances play a prominent role in “Semi Precious Weapons,” a track on both 2008’s We Love You (Razor & Tie) and the just-released You Love You (Geffen). The music itself is not remarkable (imagine an amped-up, brasher play on Jet’s “Cold Hard Bitch”), but Tranter’s enthusiastic opening wail is: “I can’t pay my rent, but I’m fucking gorgeous.” And he isn’t kidding. Although Semi Precious Weapons are now on a major label and should be getting their share of receipts from their run on Gaga’s tour, Tranter was evicted from his apartment not too long ago, and he remains, he says, “officially homeless, since touring is so fucking expensive.” Not that it’s hurt his lyrics or his attitude. Even when he picked up cans off New York City streets to pay for food, he says, “I was still doing it in five-inch heels and full make-up — looking fantastic.” No wonder strippers like SPW.

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