MAX STEELE: FICTION/NON-FICTION
You’ve met them – the kids who claim to be all this and all that, all at the same time. It’s usually a lot of, let’s say, exaggeration. In the case of one Max Steele, it is no exaggeration. He’s the epitome of what it means to be a slash kid – musician slash writer slash performance artist slash zine-maker slash DJ slash go-go boy slash actor slash pursuits-that-defy-categorization. All of his projects, activities and multiple personas are folded up into one total piece of work-in-progress, which in-person, looks like it’s about to burst out of his in-constant-motion body and stream-of-consciousness language. His blog claims akathisia (an inner restlessness, manifesting itself with an inability to sit still or remain motionless) as an agenda, but I wonder if that’s a concept or a condition. Or both. Whatever it is, it works.
Weston Bingham: You share a name with an actual toy robot from 1984 (isn’t that the same year you were born?), who was the leader of the Robo Force. His motto was “any mission, any time, any place”. Mere coincidence?
Max Steele: Wow, good research Weston! I didn’t know about that toy! I guess I would be a good leader of the Robo Force. Leos are natural leaders (but of course, I don’t need to tell YOU that). I gotta say, I don’t know if I have the same motto as my robot namesake. I’m usually too lazy to have that kind of “whatever it takes” attitude. I guess it depends on what my goal is. I’m sure I’ve shown some determination, but I’m hard pressed to remember. I try not to do desperate, but I’m sure that figures in. But, y’know – no regrets.
WB: Tell us about your life before New York.
MS: In high school I was a punk, I guess. Though I got into punk in this really backwards way. I never listened to Black Flag or the Misfits or the Dead Kennedys – I listened to a lot of riot grrrl stuff. Bratmobile, Bikini Kill – their offshoot bands were pretty central for me. I hung out in this weird hardcore teenager scene. My first boyfriend, when I was 16, was in this sort of infamous teen boy punk band, so I would go to all these hardcore shows, and everyone knew me as “the lead singer’s boyfriend”. All these teenage girls were jealous of me and I totally loved it. I was really working the Yoko thing. I’d go to punk shows and be too bored to mosh or anything, so I’d drink wine coolers and fucking make embroideries and work on these little art zines. I was sort of goth. Not at all sexy, especially not to myself.
I went to college just outside of New York City and my shtick didn’t change much. The first day I decided to live in New York was when my friend and I were ogling this really gorgeous guy on the uptown six train. He was asleep, wearing his Prada metrosexual bourgie bullshit, but was just so fucking pretty. We joked (thinking he was sleeping and couldn’t hear us standing in front of him) that after we moved to the city, people would talk about us that way. As we got off the train the dude got up and waved hi and kinda cruised me. And it changed everything. It was like, “In New York, you can participate in your fantasies and they’ll respond.” Mindblowing. I haven’t looked back.
WB: What sort of fantasies have you been participating in exactly?
MS: You know, the fantasy of realizing that the thing that separates you from the object of your desire is often a totally fictive membrane. Like, why can’t you be the hot queer couple making out on the subway train? Why can’t you sing in a band? Becoming a go-go boy was pretty great. Like, I turn myself on.
WB: You have said that you moved to New York from San Francisco because the cutest boys in the punk bands were from here, which is definitely true. So… how many boyfriends do you currently have?
MS: I don’t have any boyfriends, but everyone I make out with seems to. I don’t often really do the ‘boyfriend’ thing myself. About twice a year, maybe, I’ll fall totally in love. I’m about due. My new year’s plan is to stop dating idiots / assholes / boys with problems who I have to take care of. I’m done apologizing for my date, y’know? The cutest boys are, yes, in New York City. Most of them are my friends but it’s still possible, amazingly, to meet new people.
WB: Do I have this right – you live in a lesbian commune of sorts?
MS: For the last few years my apartment was a wonderful Sapphic family home called the Soft Butch House. There were some parties, a lot of cats (we were up to nine at one point), and the constant burning of sage. In the last six months, everyone else moved out! Now I live with my best friend Danielle, who’s an art handler and future science teacher (she teaches science but in the future, dig?), a fabulous witchy graphic artist named Patrick D., and (currently) an adorable Parisian jewelry designer named Judith. I’m kind of bossy – function like the house mom.
WB: Tell us about one of your personas – your work as a musician in your band, (or, quote band unquote, as you say), Max Steele and The Party Ice.
Max Steele and The Party Ice – “Pick-Axe and Shovel”
MS: Max Steele and The Party Ice is my disco band. I make all the music on a computer and sing it live with my fabulous back-up dancers Richert, Julia and Miriam. I’ve been doing it all alone for the last, like, six years or so. I’m starting to work with some producers to help me with the nuts and bolts of the music. The band used to be called The Icebergs, but it got confusing when it would just be me on stage. Khaela Maricich from The Blow suggested The Party Ice and it seemed perfect. Now, though, I kind of want to change the name of the band to NO REAL MAX STEELE. I sort of think of everything as going together. The zines, go-go dancing, music, performance work, even weird fashion stuff, I think of it all as a bigger life-project called Fag City.
WB: What is it that ties it all together? Is there a common thread or concept?
MS: Yes, there is a bigger concept. My experience as a queer person in our culture exposes me to a certain amount of chaos, and I’m constantly inspired by how other queers / women / working class people / disabled and fat-bodied people / trannies / etc. navigate this chaos. Fag City to me is an imaginary network of cultures. I think the bigger thread / concept is to make work that celebrates this chaos – the liberating side of having unformed, scattered identities.
WB: You mentioned “weird fashion stuff” – like what?
MS: Like modeling or working at fashion events. I don’t think of myself as a very cute person or anything, so I sort of always feel like an impostor. Especially at Fashion Week events, when I’m often ten years older than my male-model co-workers. But part of this voyeurism / impostor thing is sexy. I feel like a spy. I’m not, really, a model. But sometimes I get paid to be one. And sometimes people wanna fuck me because they see me getting paid to be one and it turns them on. Even though it’s fiction, at a certain point it becomes my fiction.
WB: What’s behind the title of your upcoming album, “The Good Daughter”?
MS: I always begin with titles. I have more titles for things (songs, movies, zines) than I have actual ideas. I think I should have been a copywriter. I think in slogans. So the title of my album is going to be “The Good Daughter”. It’s kind of my way of poking fun at the whole ‘top’ vs. ‘bottom’ debate. Kind of a euphemistic way of presenting sex, gender, power. I know a lot of Mommies, and Daddies, and a fair amount of Babies. I’ve always felt I’d be an Older Sister in this spectrum. And I like the idea of the Good Daughter: the female heir to the family throne. I’m thinking of Electra.
WB: Speaking of music, describe the depths of your love of Grace Jones.
MS: Y’know, through sheer luck, I’ve had a little bit of publicity in the last couple of months, and in everything that comes out I manage to mention Grace Jones. I’m getting a reputation and I just want to say that I am totally one hundred percent fine with that. She is a constant reference point for me – an inspiration every day. When I’m feeling blocked, I listen to her records, watch her videos and performances. Grace Jones is the sound of New York City.
WB: Nightclubbing or Warm Leatherette?
MS: Nightclubbing for sure. It’s one of my all-time favorite records ever, and the record I play when I’m in bed with someone. The first week I moved to New York, in June 2005, I remember going to Kim’s Video to buy a copy and spending the rest of the afternoon walking through a summer rainstorm – which we don’t have in California – listening to it on my CD player and cruising the East Village. I wasn’t around when it first came out, but it still feels like an entirely new sound to me. Warm Leatherette is a lot more cohesive, much more of a product, too put-together. Nightclubbing leaves a lot more room for interpretation and renegotiation. It’s just so weird. The sentiments there aren’t as sure of themselves, and it’s where you really start to see just how sexy, powerful and fucking strange the mystique of Grace can be.
WB: Conan the Destroyer or View to a Kill?
MS: This is a loaded question, Weston. Grace Jones fans lovingly forgive these movies. That being said, View to a Kill because a) fuck Arnold Schwarzenegger and b) Grace’s character in View, May Day, had better outfits, topped Bond in bed, and climbed the fucking Eiffel Tower.
WB: Grace Jones’ new album starts out with “This is my voice, my weapon of choice.” What’s your weapon?
MS: My weapon is Grace Jones’ voice. Kidding! Maybe my eyes. I tend to glare at boys I like when I’m at a bar or something.
WB: Your first few contributions to EVB were stories form your experimental porn zine, Scorcher. It’s not exactly porn though – I’d call explicit disinterested out-of-body recountings of sexual-ish misadventures, so of course we love them. Are they true?
MS: They’re all true, yeah. I mean, the events, the plots are true. Some of the inner monologue gets written after the fact, but hindsight is always 20/20. My life is pretty exciting – I don’t need to make it up. I don’t think I could if I tried.
WB: Are you really as bored, disconnected, and generally non-plussed by sex (and as distracted during) as your stories make you out to be?
MS: Whenever someone I’ve slept with or used to date gets a copy of the zine, the first question they always ask is “am I in it? Is this about me?”, half worried and half flattered. I’m also interested in using sex as a way to explore something other than, say, sexual desire. I mean, thoughts run through my mind while I’m having sex – I think this is true for everyone. I just obsessively pursue them.
WB: What I love about your writing – for Scorcher and even more so on your blog, is that it is exactly you – in constant motion, intuitive, and all over the map – a highly personal pastiche, but somehow completely accessible, fascinating, charming and brilliant. Where does it all come from?
MS: Zines, really. Well, zines and Burroughs and Gertrude Stein. I’m not very original – I feel like I make my influences really obvious. Burroughs and Stein both write in this really fucked-up continuous present, y’know, “queer tense”, which I try to emulate. I’m really inspired by the punk and riot grrrl fanzines I read (and made) in high school. The format lends itself to these manic shifts in subject, tone and tense. Fanzines also gave me license to write about myself without worrying if I was being narcissistic, I mean, it’s MY zine so what else would it be about?
WB: Queer tense. Genius – did you coin that?
MS: I did not coin that, no. Once when I was talking about the continuous present as a basically queer / gay / tranny way of organizing meaning in language, my homegirl Tommy Pico who runs Birdsong Micropress said “oh, queer tense, yeah”. I don’t know if he came up with it either, but it’s pretty true, huh?
WB: Well I suppose the blog is the new zine, so tell us about your blog Fag City, which is, of course, all about you.
MS: I’ve been keeping online diaries since high school, starting with Diaryland. With my blog now, it’s less of a “diary”, thank god. It’s pretty much the same mix of stuff as a fanzine, I guess. Mostly topical stuff, like boys I think are cute, what records I’m listening to. I sometimes post things like “style icons” where I talk about aesthetic influences. Peggy Bundy and William Klein’s 1960s movie Who Are You Polly Maggoo? were both popular posts, and both subsequently ripped off for Nylon Magazine. Just saying. I also write personal stuff. Kind of like exercising for the writing I eventually use in Scorcher.
WB: Did you formally study anything you do?
MS: I studied fiction writing throughout college, and my work got progressively worse and worse over the course of those four years. I learned a lot about “how to write”, and it made it easier to figure out which rules to break. I had taken some piano and cello lessons when I was a kid, again forgetting a lot by choice. My final two years in college I studied art history with Judith Rodenbeck and studio art with Robin Winters, both of whom changed the trajectory of my life. They literally blew my mind wide open. I sound like such a brown-noser, but they really encouraged parts of me that I didn’t think I could bring into the classroom. My senior thesis was an intertextual analysis of Warhol’s a: a novel and Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls.
WB: Who, exactly, is Billy Cheer?
MS: I have a song called “Come On Billy”, in which I am chewing someone out because they’re sleeping with my boyfriend when I’m out of town. It’s based on a real person, I guess (or, my impressions of a real person). Eventually Billy Cheer because the pseudonym I used for my zine and performances – kind of a voodoo thing. Billy Cheer is that boy at the party who you really resent because you want to be / fuck him. You know? THAT guy. When your friends mention him you roll your eyes and act really bored and say how much you hate him, but it’s totally transparent and you are obviously obsessed. At a certain point, I decided that rather than live in a “city full of Billies” (a lyric from the song), I’d just become one.
Max Steele and The Party Ice – “Come on Billy”
WB: You also DJ – what tracks can your sets not live without?
MS: I’m probably the worst DJ in the world, I play records I wanna hear. Some favorites: Pash(ly) – “Morning Sun”; Thrill Kill Kult with Lydia Lunch – “Dirty Little Secrets”; Uncanny Alliance – “I Got My Education”; Ethyl Meatplow – “Ripened Peach”; Deee-Lite – “What is Love?”; Tracy + the Plastics – “Hey Rubella”; Lauren Flax with Sia – “You’ve Changed”.
WB: You reference astrology a lot. Is it your guiding force?
MS: It’s not THE guiding force, but I do consider myself a spiritual person, a witch. Astrology and the universe definitely figure into this. I write horoscopes for a lesbian magazine (under a pseudonym), it’s part of my process.
WB: How many times have you thought about Grace Jones since we began this interview?
MS: What else is there to think about?
WB: Tell us about your favorite collaborative performances.
MS: I’m such a bad collaborator. I almost never let people help out with my projects, I’m kind of a diva. But I’ve been trying to participate more in other people’s stuff, and it feels great to hand over the reigns to someone else. So maybe I’ll try being a bit friendlier.
Performing as part of the Future Legendary Children Dance Squad was a real highlight of 2008. La JohnJoseph MC’d this big performance for a reunion of the Cockettes in New York. He covered Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” and had this amazing choreographed dance troupe. It was me, Glenn Marla, Erin Markey and Darlinda Just Darlinda. It was just unreal to be included with all these downtown superheroes. I got to meet Rumi from the Cockettes – it was great.
Also, my friend Richert Schnorr has this dance / video / performance project called Regular Motion. We spent about a year putting together dances and making these dance art music videos. It’s called Graphic Glory and he just released the DVD in November. That was amazing to participate in, too.
WB: How about your solo performances?
MS: Yeah, I’m working on some solo performance stuff. I guess it’s “performance art”, but that term has kind of a bad rap. I always think of myself as coming more from a gallery art perspective, rather than a theater perspective. But I perform in theater spaces, so it’s weird. The performance I’m working on combines work I do in the zine and in the band, but it’s not musical. It’s sort of more like a fictional Public Service Announcement. I think if I had to describe my art medium it’d be “imaginary boyfriends”.
WB: You have a performance coming up soon – what should we expect? Or maybe what should we NOT expect.
MS: I’m performing February 24th at the new Dixon Place. The show is called “Lover, Ferocious”. I first performed it as a work-in-progress last summer, when I called it “The Horrible Time (You Tried to Kill Me)”. It’s a one-man show with supertitles and visuals. It’s funny, I think. And kind of sad. I don’t know. It’s about hanging out with babies and falling in love with a panther.
WB: When you’re go-go dancing, is it art, performance, simple exhibitionism, or just really easy cash?
MS: All of the above. I’m actually not much of an exhibitionist, though. I don’t think my body is so great. I’ve always maintained that go-go dancing is the single best use of my B.A. in Liberal Arts. It’s really weird actually – go-go boys exist in this weird nether-region between scenery and spotlight. It’s a way to simultaneously help create the vibe / energy in the room, and also comment on what’s happening. That’s what I’m doing when I go-go dance – having a conversation with myself!
WB: What are your rules of engagement for money in the underwear?
MS: People are always allowed to tip me. They’re just not allowed to do anything else. Well, not MUCH else, but it depends on my mood, and who’s tipping. Besides, I think it’s much more romantic for the go-go boy to be the one to make the first move.
WB: What’s your feeling, as an ex-Californian, on the state of Mexican food in New York?
MS: It’s been hard, I’ve learned to do without. I don’t eat Mexican food when I’m in New York, and I don’t eat pizza when I’m in California.
WB: What’s next for Max Steele?
MS: I’m putting the finishing touches on a new issue of Scorcher. Some new stories, and some things published in various outlets over the last year. Some of them have appeared in Birdsong, a zine I regularly contribute to. I’m co-starring in a new play by my brilliant friend Dan Fishback called You Will Experience Silence. He won a grant to write it in 2006, and it’s finally going to happen in April at Dixon Place. It’s very heavy stuff, but also really funny. I think I’m fucking hilarious. I’m also working with a music producer on some new songs for a record, but I don’t want to give too much away because he’s onto something amazing.
WB: Finally, I’ve heard you describing the kinds of guys you like, and I swear it’s different every time. So, what’s your type today?
MS: Well, I think John, EVB Boy of the Week from a while back is a fucking FOX – as kind of a guideline. I have eclectic, distinct taste. I’m a snob and I’m proud of it. I often say that I like boys who have darker features than I do, but it’s not a deal-breaker. I also usually like boys shorter than me, but most people are shorter than me. But, y’know, no rules, really. Everything’s negotiable.
Portraits of Max shot for EVB by Shelby Gates