New York City cabaret/performance-art/drag icon Joey Arias hits the road next month with fellow East Village art scene veteran Kristian Hoffman for a West Coast tour called Lightning Strikes, so... get ready, America! Borrowed from the title of German countertenor Klaus Nomi's song by the same name, Lightning Strikes marks the first collaboration between Arias and Hoffman, both having been dear friends and collaborators with Nomi until the time of his death in 1983.
I had the chance to catch up with Joey last week to chat about music, love, Lady Gaga vs. Madonna, how the gay rights movement has changed and what magic is in store for us as Lightning Strikes rolls into cities across the western United States.
Logan Lynn: As you already know, I adore you. To me, you are everything that matters about New York.
Joey Arias: Thank you, Logan, for that lovely compliment. New York is a state of mind. The Empire State: that's me! [Laughs.]
Lynn: The last time we saw you in Portland was a couple years back, for the premiere of Arias With a Twist at QDoc: Queer Documentary Film Festival, where you famously performed with Pink Martini frontman Thomas Lauderdale on piano at Mother's Bistro. How was that friendship formed? Are there more Joey Arias/Pink Martini collaborations in store?
Arias: I guess I love meeting beautiful people. You have been super-sweet to me, as have Thomas and Hugh and many others in Portland. As far as Pink Martini goes, I'd been a huge fan, and it was Kim Hastrieter of Paper mag that introduced us. Thomas came to my apartment and dropped off his CD and hugged me and said how much he loved me, and then he ran away. We caught up that evening at Kim's for dinner and got into a great conversation. I've been invited many times to perform with them. It's been an honor to grace the stage with them! We're all so busy, and I don't know when the next time will be, but I'm sure in the future there will be more collaborations.
Lynn: That is very exciting! Speaking of collaborations, many folks remember your famous performance with David Bowie and Klaus Nomi on Saturday Night Live in the '80s. Your new tour is named after one of Klaus Nomi's songs. Is the tour a tribute to your old friend, in part?
Arias: The tour is a celebration of friendship. Kristian Hoffman was part of the original East Village scene. He was playing with The Mumps and writing tunes for many artists. It was Kristian who got Klaus to perform his first concert at... I forget the name... oh, yes, Max's Kansas City, and everyone in the band wore masks. I invited Kenny Scharf to join me, and we were the blue goon squad cops! So Kristian started to write Klaus songs and suggested what tunes to sing. Klaus was very inspired by Kristian's choice of songs, so since it's our first time working together, we thought it was a great choice to call the tour Lightning Strikes.
I have Manfred Thierry Mugler directing, telling me what my approach and attitudes should be. He's not a fashion designer anymore. People have to know that he also has moved on. Earl Dax has also been very instrumental in the push every day, making sure that I've done certain things, getting the tour set up, and making sure that everything is ready. He's been major in my life and new growth.
Lynn: It sounds like you are surrounded by a great group of people. If you could have your pick of anyone in the world to work with on a record, who would it be?
Arias: If I were to pick someone to work with, I think it would be a tossup between Jimmy Page and David Bowie... or both! I've always loved the aesthetic of their styles and what I'm doing. But then again there is Ben Allison, who's the creator of the Jazz Collective -- much different than just the ol' jazz ways; he takes it out somewhere else! I love what he's done with me, and we've been working on original tunes, also.
Lynn: You are going to kick off the tour with a special show with your longtime collaborator Eliot Douglas in San Francisco. Tell us about your history together.
Arias: I met Eliot in Los Angeles through a friend of mine who is no longer with us, and he had this restaurant and jazz/performance space. It was the hippest thing going on, so I was flown out to do my Strange Fruit show, and I met the band. They knew nothing of me, but the owner said it was sold out and that many celebs were coming -- Madonna and friends, Pee-wee Herman, Elvira. The band was gagging with me, and Eliot and I really enjoyed each other. After that, we would meet up and play at various clubs, and I would invite him to travel with me. It became a great team. Long sort short, I was invited to join Cirque du Soleil, and I wanted Eliot to be with me. He wasn't sure at first, but eventually he gave in, and the rest is history. He is still in Zumanity! These days, whenever I have a special date, he takes the time off to play with me, as is the case with our Castro Theater performance coming up in San Francisco. After that stop I meet up with Kristian Hoffman, and the tour will begin!
Lynn: That is going to be amazing. In the beginning, did you set out to become a star?
Arias: Weeee! Everybody has that dream. I just wanted people to recognize me in whatever I did. Everyone is a star; it just depends on how far you want to shine!
Arias: My love life these days is all about the next show or song I will sing. I go to the gym, relax, meet friends for dinner, see other fiends perform, see movies, read books and play with RuMbles, our little French Bulldog. Juano is still very much in my life. He is daddy to our child, RuMbles, and we love each other very much. Our relationship has changed over the years, but it's only gotten better. I have never met someone so strong and out there. You know, he's Scottish, and they are wild! We do like to meet other people and look around. That's what keeps us close. There are no chains attached. I believe he has to have his own life, as do I. Otherwise you don't grow. That doesn't mean we are sleeping around, but it's healthy to go window shopping, if you get my drift.
Lynn: I am pickin' up what you are throwin' down, sister. Glad to hear you are happy and have found something together that works for both of you! Many people may not realize that beyond being a performer and singer, you are also a visual artist. Are you working on anything currently in this medium?
Arias: I love art and went to school to become a visual artist, but then I found myself singing, etc. I love to collect ideas and work on them. Juano and I had a joint show last year in NYC, and it was a great success! Juano wanted us to collaborate on some pieces, and so we did.
Lynn: I know! It was great.
Lynn: I look forward to seeing it! Speaking of seeing things, what are your thoughts on RuPaul's Drag Race? Is it good for drag or the end of drag?
Arias: RuPaul has found her niche in television. I think most newcomers think if they're not on that show, that they will never go anywhere, but I could never do half the stuff they do -- make clothes, jump through fiery hoops and then get bonked on the head with "sashay away"! The Drag Race reality show is not my thing.
Lynn: Yes, the rejection piece of that show is so rough! That shit would crush me. Would you ever consider being a guest judge?
Arias: It would be fun to be a judge, but I don't see that happening. I don't have that fame Ru is looking for.
Lynn: I don't know. Fame is in the eye of the beholder, sweet Joey. While we are on the subject of drag, do you identify with the title "drag queen"? I tend to think of you more as a performance artist.
Arias: I'm not sure if I consider myself a drag queen anymore... maybe years ago! It's taken on a new face. I do love to dress up, but for the world I have to say I'm an artist, because sometimes I don't even wear a dress. I just want to sing. With Manfred Thierry Mugler, we went with the concept of "Z chromosome" -- not he nor she but Z, the last letter of the alphabet. I don't consider myself X or Y. My job is to entertain. I was engineered to perform, to make babies -- my art is my child!
Lynn: Making babies is fun. Might we expect to see a new baby record from you sometime soon?
Arias: I'm working on recording this year in the next few months. It's been a while since I've released anything. I'm ready now. The last thing I put out was Arias With a Twist, a live recording of the show with some original bonus tracks.
Lynn: Ah, Arias With a Twist. So dreamy!
Watch a clip from the show here:
Lynn: While we are on the subject of performance, the New York cabaret scene has been churning out new faces over the past few years. How do you feel about up-and-comers like Lady Rizo?
Arias: The cabaret scene in NYC is thriving, and I love it. There is so much to see: Taylor Mac, Justin Bond, Meow Meow, Lady Rizo, Danniel Isengart and more. I respect what they all do. They are all different and serve their styles. I'm not better than anyone. Maybe I have more under my belt, but I don't use that to be better than thou... if you get the picture! [Laughs.]
Lynn: It must be nice to sit back and look at this whole scene you helped create. Another musical creature to come out of the New York City downtown music scene is Lady Gaga. What are your thoughts on her whole intergalactic stardom trip?
Arias: Gaga is talented, but she has put herself in a box with the costumes. She is young and pulling strings. She did say Leigh Bowery, David Bowie, Klaus and I inspired her. Lady Gaga has an amazing voice and writes great tunes, whereas Madonna does not. Well, maybe now that she's on that guitar...
Lynn: Oh, please do tell me more of your thoughts on Madonna!
Arias: Madonna is the original mold. There will never be anyone like her. She works very hard, and it shows. Her last tour was mind-boggling. She will never stop. She is the queen of pop, period!
Lynn: It is really impressive that she has managed to keep her success going like she has. Will there ever be a time when you envision hanging up your hat... er... bodess and microphone, or do you see yourself still out there working a crowd when you are 120?
Arias: I don't think I will ever "hang my hat up," as you say. I don't know what else to do! I love my art. I choose to sing those old ballads of love, which I could do forever. I will become an old lady and sit on a stool and look fantastic while I sing my arse off, no doubt about that (God willing)!
Lynn: That sounds really cute! So what are your thoughts on the LGBT movement as it stands currently?
Arias: The gay movement will always be a movement. That's why they call it a movement! It will always be hard for gays, no matter what. It was incurable when the president mentioned Stonewall and now the religious and republicans are losing their minds. What?! Now they have to deal with that!
Lynn: Do you feel like we are on the precipice of freedom?
Arias: Freedom is a state of mind. I've always been free! It has to be a collective conscience. You can't be bothered by these people. Every day I see more advances in the movement. Think about it: Blacks are equal, but you still have people saying the "n" word. Nothing really ever changes. It's your state of mind.
Lynn: I hear naked is a state of mind, too. How has being out changed for you over the years, both as a performer and as a citizen of the world? Is it easier now?
Arias: As a person who is out there over the years, I feel really great within my skin. As a citizen of the planet Earth, I feel there are still many hurdles to jump. It all depends on how you do it for yourself and your neighbor. I go about my day and do what I feel is great and happy. You still never know if there is someone out there that wants to blow you away. I can't think like that. When you're in the public eye, you have to expect the unexpected.
Lynn: What was it like to play Madison Square Garden?
Arias: I did a stint for George Michael at Madison Square Garden. That was a trip. That was too crazy! I've done bigger. Berlin's gay pride is almost a million people. It just becomes the cosmos. After a while you have entered the black hole. [Laughs.]
Lynn: Size queen! We are all so excited to see you onstage out west again. If you could sum up the tour in just one word, what would it be?
Arias: The tour in a word? "Friendship"!
Lynn: That's sweet. I can't wait. Thank you so much for chatting with me today, dearest Joey! Anything you'd like to leave everyone with?
Arias: My last words on this interview are that I hope anyone who reads this will be inspired and find who they are and be a good, happy person. Not everyone was made for the spotlight. It takes a toll if you're not ready for it. Just enjoy what this Earth and life have given you!
Lynn: Wise words from a spectacular talent. You are an American treasure, Joey Arias. I am so happy you are in the world!
Catch Joey Arias on tour:
Feb. 14 (Valentine's Day)
San Francisco, Calif.
Castro Theatre (produced by Marc Huestis)
Los Angeles, Calif.
Alberta Rose Theatre
Salt Lake City, Utah
Joey Arias can be found on Facebook.