One of the freshest sounding acts to arguably emerge on the music scene is New York’s Semi Precious Weapons. The alternative rock/punk/glam-band, which formed in 2006, is comprised of Justin Tranter (vocals), Cole Whittle (bass), Stevy Pyne (guitar) and Dan Crean (drums), all graduates of Boston’s Berklee College of Music. SPW have showcased their particular brand of “filthy glamour” worldwide since November ’09, as the opening act on Lady Gaga’s hugely successful Monster Ball Tour.
“Gaga was a really big fan of our band,” says Tranter, explaining his band’s history with the reigning Princess of Pop. “She was 18, 19 years old, living in New York, and we had moved to New York to start our band; it was kind of perfect. We were her favorite local band. And then we heard that, not only was she a fan, but she was an amazing performer herself. We checked out her MySpace page, because it was 2006 and that’s what you did then. She was obviously amazing. An awesome musician; playing piano really well, singing really well, but also naked and lighting hairspray on fire. So it was a perfect fit for us,” he continues. “She started opening for us a lot, all over New York; that’s how we became friends. Then she moves to L.A. to make the biggest record of the decade. Luckily, she insisted and put her foot down, that we open for her all over the world, ‘cause she believes that we are the next great rock band.”
The band’s first album, We Love You, was originally available as a free download in ’07 and re-released in 2008 (Razor & Tile). But, according to bassist Whittle, the band views that release as bad-sounding “rap mix tape”. Several tracks were re-recorded for the band’s follow-up album, 2010’s You Love You (Geffen). “We chose (to re-do) the songs that the whole world needed to hear because we know the whole world is gonna hear this record, which is (considered to be) our debut.” Adds Tranter, “Some of those songs we loved so much that we wanted to re-do them the right way and have them sound how we’ve always wanted them to sound. And they do.”
Reaction to the band’s success has been mixed. Tranter explains, “Right when things first started to go well for us, some of the original fans got really mad. They loved us, like, their losers…’no one knowing they are. Only we know. We’re going to every show they play, because when they play in Oklahoma, no one’s gonna be there.’ And they loved that. So now they are kinda pissed that, when we play in Oklahoma, we’re opening for the biggest pop star in the world. But the good fans will stick through it all. They’re rooting for us.”
Whittle continues, laughing off the seeming contradiction between the band’s unique blend of rock, punk and glam. “None of this is planned. This is just the disaster that actually happened when we all got in a room together,” he states. “I think it’s the dynamic of, everyone got so used to every band being carbon copies of each other. This band is one of those bands where every dude wears black jeans and black t-shirts. We look like we live off a consistent diet of paint chips. We’re like Black Flag fronted by Stevie Nicks.” Tranter interjects, chuckling sarcastically, “It’s a very subtle show…classy.”
On a more serious note, the flamboyant frontman explains that the band’s essence compliments Gaga’s. “Esthetically, it matches so well. We’re catchy enough for a pop audience to still have fun. If there is a 6-minute guitar solo, which there is, I’m changing my outfit…on stage, during that 6-minute guitar solo. So there’s something for everyone to really, really love, or really, really hate. You can literally see parents who are covering their children’s eyes,” he says, bemused. “The hard-core Gaga fans are not shocked. They’re ready for it. So not only are we not pop music, we’re visually terrifying.” Whittle adds, “In Europe, they used to put up big signs, ‘Beware. The opening act is not suitable for children.’ That was the greatest day of my life.” Tranter concurs, “We are honored by that. It means that we’re actually rock and roll. It’s actually dangerous. It’s actually exciting.” SPW also found time on breaks from the Monster Ball to perform solo gigs, which they aptly titled Dirty Showbiz Tour.
Tranter, who also moonlights as a jewelry designer, is openly bi-sexual and appreciates that other ‘out’ artists are having success in the mainstream. Comparisons to another out, ‘glam’ boy of today are inevitable. “Adam Lambert is an amazing, amazing singer. He’s also a huge fan of our band,” says Tranter. “He’s helped us sell some records. He’s tweeted about our song, Put a Diamond In It, multiple times. Everytime he does, all of a sudden, on iTunes, that’s the most popular song for the week. So we thank him for that. I think Adam Lambert has a very over the top visual image, but musically, he’s a pop star and he’s the first one to admit it. There’s nothing rock and roll about what he does. So I think that he’s awesome and talented and I think that it’s great because he’s a fan of ours. But what we do is very different. There’s room for all of us.”
What does the future hold for Semi Precious Weapons? “We hope to bring rock and roll back to the mainstream,” says Tranter. “Not only are our personalities insane and over the top and are missing in pop culture…but if there could be a band where the guitar actually sounds like a guitar and the drummer is actually playing real drums…the voice is a real voice…not a robot voice. I think that would be quite and exciting moment for pop culture. We wanna go back to the heyday of rock and roll when bands would make shorter records, but made a new album every year.”
The band also jokes that it’s finally nice to be reaping some of the rewards of fame. “We could pay our rent, if we had apartments!” laughs Tranter. “But touring is so expensive and our touring schedule is so long, so we have no apartments to pay rent for.”
“But who needs a home when you have rock and roll?”
Story by Marie Boivie, Interview by Dan Savoie