Justin Tranter is the lead singer of the provocative glam rock outfit Semi Precious Weapons. Classically-trained, yet socially-deviant, Tranter and company have quickly emerged as the faces of an international movement to resuscitate rock and roll — by telling the world to “put a diamond in it and bite down.”
As the opening act for the North American, European, Oceanic, and Asian legs of Lady GaGa’s critically-acclaimed Monster Ball Tour, “S.P.W.” has skyrocketed out of the underground scene and landed smack-dab into mainstream music culture. So, if Cole Whittle, Dan Crean, and Stevy Pyne have their way, Semi Precious Weapons will carve a sizable niche in the musical landscape, with Justin Tranter as their guide, while Geffen Records tirelessly promotes their self-titled EP.
After a four-night stint at Radio Music Hall, Justin Tranter managed to squeeze some time out of his busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on the band’s greatest “rock and roll” moment, the inspiration behind “Magnetic Baby,” and the lasting influence of his Berklee experience.
A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to catch Semi Precious Weapons open for Lady GaGa's Monster Ball Tour in New York City at Radio City Music Hall. After the show, I picked up a couple of your yellow t-shirts with the following quote: “I can’t pay my rent, but I’m f**king gorgeous!” [laughing] That being said, what’s the craziest thing that you have spent your rent money on?
Well, I spend everything that I make on the band. Even though I have a jewelry line that has done pretty well, the amount of money I’ve spent trying to be the biggest rock star in the world has been pretty absurd. So all of my money has gone to music and glamour.
Speaking of glamour, midway through your set, you changed into an outrageous pair of boots. And in the seat behind me, this lady practically lost her mind — saying that she would kill for those boots! [laughing]
Are they custom-made?
Actually, for the first couple of years with the band, I would always just order stripper shoes and kind of alter them myself. But now, luckily, Stuart Weitzman is custom making heels for me. So I get some pretty fancy shoes, nowadays. My woman’s 12W is much better than a pair of stripper heels from a sex shop in the West Village.
Oh, my! [laughing] So how would you describe your sense of style?
Well, we just kind of call it “garage glam.” Like filthy glamour, you know? I still want to be glamorous, I still want to be feminine; but I like to keep it filthy and real.
At this point, last year, you were co-headlining the Hell on Heels Tour with Von Iva and Nico Vega. Looking back, how did that experience prepare you for the Monster Ball Tour?
At the time, we were just four guys driving ourselves around in van. And whether we were playing to 200 people in a bar in Iowa or playing to 12,000 people at a hockey arena in Montreal, our show needed to be just as f**king good. So I think the biggest professional lesson we’ve learned is that this show has got to kick ass no matter where you are.
You and all the other fellows studied music at Berklee [College of Music]. What lasting effects do you see in repertoire?
Studying music in school just made us the best musicians that we could be, and really figure out what kind of music we wanted to make, and exactly how we wanted to make it.
So how did you come up with this particular style? Was it a conscious effort or a completely organic evolution?
It was a little bit of both. Consciously, we wanted to play music that was f**king fun. After studying so much serious music in school, we wanted to just have a really good f**king time. And then, organically, this is the type of music that always made us so happy. So, it was a little bit of both. It was just playing music that we knew people wanted to f**king hear, and also playing music that made us really happy.
How did you all come up with the group’s name?
I wanted to start the greatest rock band ever, and wanted to called it Precious. And the gentlemen in the band, the other geniuses in this group, decided that Precious was a little too pussy. So we added the Semi and the Weapons. So we saw it as kind of a perfect description of the band. I’m very glamorous and precious, but it’s still balls to the wall and filthy and bad ass.
At Berklee, you specialized in songwriting, which was a passion of yours long before the band was even formed. At what point did you realize that you were a really good songwriter?
Well, I first started writing songs when I was probably about fifteen. I had been playing music since I was twelve, and then at fifteen started writing songs. And I didn’t really know — I guess I wasn’t even really sure if I was any good at it, probably, until I was like twenty. But I knew it was my favorite thing to do – which was, I guess, all that really mattered. And I was going to find any f*cking way to do it.
One of my favorite songs off of your forthcoming album is “Magnetic Baby.” Walk me through the songwriting process for that particular song.
Normally I write everything, the lyrics and the melody and the music. Either we do it all as a band, all together at the same time, or if it is a song that I write by myself, I normally am sitting at the piano and do all of it together. “Magnetic Baby” was one of the only songs ever where I wrote the lyrics and the melody while walking home from some party in Manhattan – walking over the Wenford Bridge to get home because I was so f**king broke. I couldn’t even afford the subway. And so, the song came to me. In the bridge, it talks about how the Empire State turned the sky green, and that the Empire State Building was all lit up green. The song was just kind of about knowing exactly who you are since you were born and embracing it, whether you think it sucks or not. Loving yourself whether you’re awesome or not; having a great time with being exactly who you are.
Playing off the title a little bit, if there were two artists that conceived you, as their special, “magnetic baby,” who would those two artists be?
Marilyn Monroe and Iggy Pop.
Cool combo! [laughing] What about those two artists do you admire?
I think Marilyn Monroe is the most glamorous person to ever live. Her look is so iconic and I think that there’s an amazing art form to being an artist where your look is so memorable. And her silhouette was so memorable and everything she did was so memorable. And then Iggy Pop, I think, is just one of the greatest rock 'n' roll performers to ever live.
A year or so ago, you had an interesting quote in Rolling Stone, where you wanted We Love You, your independent album, to originally be called Abort Rock 'n' Roll. How come? [laughing] That’s a really explosive title.
You’ve done your research! [laughing] Yes, I wanted to call the record Abort Rock 'n' Roll, just because I thought it was a really shocking, absurd thing to say, especially when you think about people’s perception of what rock ‘n' roll is nowadays. I mean, people think that f**king Nickleback is rock ‘n' roll, and that’s not to make fun of Nickleback — it’s just that they aren’t rock ‘n' roll. There’s nothing dangerous. There’s nothing sexy. There’s nothing rebellious, and that’s the whole point of rock 'n' roll. And so, saying “abort rock 'n' roll” was just like, “Well, no one even really understands what rock 'n' roll is supposed to be any more. So f**k it. Just abort the whole thing. We’ll start from scratch.” [laughing]
During your set at Radio City, you mentioned how you got in trouble at one show for feeding champagne to minors. On top of that episode, what do you think is your greatest rock 'n' roll moment, thus far?
Well, we get injured a lot on stage – I’ve bled. But our greatest rock 'n' roll moment — let me think. It’s got to be real good. We’ve got a lot of absurd sh*t. I mean, at Radio City – what you’re referencing – we got in trouble for serving the champagne to minors. Stevy also ran all over the entire audience. At the end of the show where I scream, “Lady Gaga, Lady . . .” Stevy ran all over the entire audience. We never really were sure if it was true or not, but our tour manager was telling us that we were going to get fined $30,000! [laughing]
Oh, wow! [laughing]
Oh, and this security guard f**king tried to tackle him. So I think that show at Radio City was maybe one of our most rock 'n' roll moments, because being that absurd and that filthy in such a prestigious venue was pretty f**king awesome! So between the champagne, between the almost getting fined $30,000, and between getting tackled by a security guard on our own stage during our own f**king performance is a pretty rock 'n' roll moment.
Last year, you were a featured guest on MTV’s MADE, where you turned Michelle Peck into a rock star. Is there a piece of advice that you gave her that you think was really pivotal in shaping your own career?
That was really an amazing experience, and just kind of reinforced everything I already knew – which was that if you don’t think you’re awesome, then you have no business being on stage! [laughing]
Yeah, I definitely agree with you on that! [laughing] How did you become so self-assured? Or were you just born that way?
I think a little bit of both. I think I was luckily born a pretty happy f**king person, but then also I have really awesome parents and really cool brothers. Everybody’s all for everybody being whoever it is that they are. And I think, also, with the band, there’s so much confidence because we just love playing music together so much. We love hanging out, and we love all the ridiculous s**t that we do. I think the amount of fun that we have doing what we do just makes us that much more confident.
What about the other band members? How would you describe Cole, Dan, or Stevy?
For Dan, I would say womanizer. For Stevy, I would say creeper. And for Cole, I would say shithound. Womanizer, creeper, and shithound.
Interesting [laughing]. So, I imagine it’s all fun and games when you are on the road. But on the serious side, what major obstacles have you overcome, together, as a band?
Well, I think our biggest accomplishment as a band is that we just didn’t f**king give up. And we worked so f**king hard, and we sold our own merchandise, and we made our own merch, and we wrote all our own songs, and we drove ourselves to all of our own shows. There was multiple demo deals with major labels. We almost had a TV show with like three different networks. There’s so many different things that almost happened that kept falling through. And I think most other bands would have given up a lot sooner, but we luckily just kept f*cking going. I think that’s our biggest accomplishment as a band – that we kept f**king going. And now it seems — obviously it hasn’t blown up yet — but it seems like we’re really in a place where we have a really big label that really believes in us. The biggest pop star in the world believes in us enough to take us all over the whole world with her. So it really, really f**king paid off, just the fact that we kept going.
It is so easy to give up, but for some reason, you all didn’t. What was the driving, motivating force?
I think we didn’t give up because we just knew this was all we really want to do. And I think on top of that, though — I mean, obviously a lot of people really want to do something, then they quit; but for us, too, it didn’t matter whether there was fifteen people at a show or a thousand; that everyone was having so much f**king fun. And that we could go to some random f**king city; we could go to Columbus, Ohio or go to St. Louis, Missouri, and there’s all these people — even if it’s only a couple of hundred — they know every single word and they know everything about us. It was just like every time we’d play a show, no matter how big or small it was, there was the assurance that what we were doing — the people who have heard of it, loved it. So it was just about not quitting, to get more people to care about what we’re doing.
It helps to have the world’s biggest pop star, [Lady Gaga], supporting you. I think it is interesting that, at one point, she opened for you? Now, she has returned the favor. How did you first meet?
We had heard through a couple of friends in New York City that she was a big fan of our band. And she, obviously, has played a couple of shows out, but not too many. They weren’t her first shows ever, but definitely her first couple of shows as Lady GaGa. And yeah, she opened for us and she was just so f**king crazy and so awesome, and we hung out a couple of times. She always ended up at our loft, because she would always leave s**t at the show. Because she’d be so wasted, she’d leave her clear, Lucite stripper pumps or her keyboard stands or whatever the f*ck it was, and so she’d have to come and find her crap a week later.
That’s kind of how we became friends and fans of each other. And then she left New York to go to L.A. to make her record, but she was so modest about it, we didn’t really know what she was doing. We had no clue she was writing songs with Akon and no clue that she had written a song with her f**king New Kids on the Block and the Pussycat Dolls. So we knew that she was in L.A. working, but we didn’t realize how big it was. And then, the next thing you know, she’s on every f**king radio station as we’re driving ourselves to bars in the Midwest.
Every other song you hear is Lady GaGa. Luckily, we kept in touch, and every time she came to New York, she asked us to open for her. And then, luckily, for this big tour, her first really, really big headline tour, she has enough power and enough clout that she was able to tell everybody that works with her that we were going to be the opening band whether they liked it or not. And so, here we are! [laughing]
Considering all the time that has passed since you first met, what did that teach you about relationships and the way the industry worked?
Everybody knows that good friends and good artists should stick together, and it actually has worked.
Stepping outside the world of music for a second, you made mention earlier that you are a jewelry designer. How did you get your start in that particular craft?
For the first show that we ever had as Semi Precious Weapons, I wanted to make something to sell. We didn’t, obviously, have a CD yet. We didn’t have t-shirts. I had worked in jewelry stores in the past. All of my day jobs were always in jewelry stores. And so I just said, “F**k it. I’ll make some necklaces.” It was our first show, but I had already had the band logo – which was a gun and a heart – and so I made these necklaces. And people just kind of freaked the f**k out, luckily. So then I sold them to boutiques in New York and people were buying them. I was like, “Well, screw this. I’m going to quit my day job and just make jewelry.” And then worked my ass off and got Urban Outfitters to buy them. And then made it in 14kt gold and diamonds, and got Barney’s to buy it. I guess, in some ways, it was an accident but it was just a very, very hardworking accident. It was an accident that took hours and hours and hours of work.
Wow! So that “accident” paid for your band?
Yeah. It funded the whole band, which was amazing! [laughing]
Sometimes fate just works things out! [laughing] The gun and the heart – what’s the symbolism between those two items?
I just think they’re so opposite in such a beautiful way.
For more information on Semi Precious Weapons, visit the band’s official website: http://semipreciousweapons.com/