ROBERT URBAN interviewed by Pam DeGroff
February 2006 in TG FORUM Magazine
What years were you in college? What year did you graduate and when did you move to New York? (specific dates weren't mentioned on your site.)
I went to college in the 70's and came to NYC around 1980. I was a graduate student in Philosophy at The New School for Social Research, NYC, when i came upon a quote by Nietzsche - "What the world needs is a philosopher who sings". I left grad school and switched my career plans from writing/teaching philosophy to making music.
There's mention of something called the "Broadway's Greatest Flops" album. What year was this released? What did you sing on the project, and is it still available?
I played flute on this album. (flute was my main instrument in college) I believe it was released in the late 1970's. I have heard people talk that they know of the album - One could google it to see if it was ever also released on CD.
What year was your book of poetry "Abominations" published?
ABOMINATIONS copyright 1992 by Robert Urban
All Rights Reserved. TXu 348 521 First Edition: 1988
Some of the poems in ABOMINATIONS can be read at:
including several that have won glbt literary arts awards
Talk a little about your concert series -"Urban Productions Proudly Presents" - how often do you have these shows? When did they start? What kind of venues are they staged in? How many artists are on the roster at any given show? What kind of music?
I started the "Urban Productions BOLDLY Presents" shows in 2000. I wanted to create opportunities for glbt live musicians to perform, and for glbt fans of live music to experience good quality live glbt talent. Our shows mostly occur in live music venues - acoustic or electric. In 2003-4 we did about one per month. One can see awesome ive-in-concert photos of many past Urban Productions shows
on my website at: http://roberturban.com/urbanprodliveconcertsindex.html
Some of our shows - like 2004's huge RIDE ON Benefit concert for AIDS research at the NYC GLBT Community Center - http://roberturban.com/rideon.html - featured around 8 different glbt musical acts. Mostly, I like to limit the shows to no more than 3 acts. And many featured only one act. I really like to let an act do a whole set, where audiences can get a good, full experience.
Tho mostly either rock or acoustic folk - our shows have featured many different styles of music. For example, I have created certain kinds of "themed" concerts, like our "Transgender Rock Explosion",
"Stars of Women's Music", "Track Artists Night" , "All Acoustic Artists" and even our famous "Open Wide" open mic nights. Some shows feature a collection of different styled artists who are all recording at Urban Productions Recording Studio (see - http://roberturban.com/discography.html). Sometimes i put together an Urban Productions show of all my current guitar/singer-songwriter students (see - http://roberturban.com/privateinstruction.html).
There's no regular schedule or venue for the shows - I kind of create them as an opportunity arises - I prefer to do fewer well, produced, well-attended shows than many mediocre, poorly-attended ones.
Is the ROBERT URBAN BAND still performing on a regular basis? If so, are there any plans you can talk about, or current projects with the band that you want to discuss?
Not a year has gone by in the last 20 years or more that The Robert Urban Band, in one incarnation or another, has not performed..
We just played several shows on Halloween weekend in the NYC area, including opening up for Urban Productions' TRANS ROCK HALLOWEEN at Arlene's Grocery Rock Club (see - http://roberturban.com/transrockhalloween.html). I am now about to start my 5th solo cd, so the band may be down for a while. I'll bring in my bandmates, past and present, to help lay down tracks when I record, but whenever I do one of my cds I kinda get reclusive.
How did you get involved in working with transgendered musicians?
Well, I've always enjoyed working with good musicians - be they straight, gay, lesbian, trans - I guess you could say I'm a slut for original talent - across the board. Have always been.
Even tho I am a gay male, and have been "out" as far back as I can recall, there are not a whole lot of other gay males into real, live music, esp rock music. Most of my life has been spent playing with straight guys. When I first started getting into the glbt music community, I played alot with lesbians, as they really know how to play their stuff.
As for transgendered musicians per se - It just kinda happened. They are a vibrant, rising force in rock music and I was bound to stumble upon them. I think the first trans rocker I saw live was Lisa
Jackson - it was a real eye and ear opener for me. Lisa ROCKS! As a contributing writer to www.AfterElton.com gay arts & entertainment magazine, I had an idea to write an article on the exploding trans rock music scene, for which I had to do a lot of research. The members of the TG Music Society Yahoo Group helped me identify trans rock acts, like Lipstick Conspiracy, Temptress and All the Pretty Horses. The article caused quite a sensation, as many gays (like myself) had previously only been familiar with drag queen/lip synch type acts; had not really made a distinction between drag and transgender, and were fascinated to discover trans talent with real rock talent. I got more reader email response from that article than for any previous one I'd written.
Shortly after, the TG Music Society released their first TG Music Compilation CD, which I reviewed - allowing me to further discover lots of new trans artists.
Then I had the idea to host and produce an entire evening of the best trans-rock talent from all over the U.S. here in NYC - so I pitched it to the board of FRESH FRUIT FESTIVAL. Although the Fest is usually geared more towards glbt theater/plays/musicals/poetry, etc, they took a chance with me - It turned out Urban Productions' TRANS ROCK EXPLOSION concert on July 16, 2005, starring LISA JACKSON, TEMPTRESS, VIBRALUX and GEORGIE JESSUP turned out to be the biggest hit of the 3 week fest, attracting the largest crowd.
Accompanying Georgie Jessup live onstage at the show was an absolute joy. I was particularly impressed with Vibralux - they've gotta be one of the heaviest rock groups on the entire world music scene today. And what can one say about Chuck of Temptres?!?!? the guy is just over-the-top!
I also think I share something in my own past - of overcoming obstacles in order to reach higher acheivement, etc. - of succeeding against the odds (how dare a queer play rock guitar!) - of breaking new ground, etc - that I find myself feeling kindred to the struggle for acceptance that I sense many trans artists must also feel.
And not sure if I know how to say this - I've always just really dug women playing rock instruments - going all the way back to HEART and FANNY and JOAN JETT, etc., I just get all excited - watching women excel on drums, bass, electric guitar, etc. Seeing it happen live - It always seemed somehow refeshing, challenging, empowering and fun. There's probably a little of the feminine in my own soul up there on the stage.
Do you feel transgender musicians are getting more interest from the industry? From the public?
Yes I do. The interest is already happening.
As a non-trans person, but a supporter nonetheless, what is the biggest problem facing transgender musicians in your opinion? Also, what do you feel is the most common mistake a transgender musician can make?
Sometimes transgender persons have to take some time out of their lives while they make their transition. Happily, it appears that with modern science and better understanding, they are able to do this faster and at a younger ager than they could have in the past - and thus emerge transitioned at an earlier age.
Still, many lose some time, and as the performing arts is VERY youth oriented to begin with, one problem facing trans music artists is to become who they really are AS FAST AS THEY CAN. This is important so they can optimize the best years they have for realizing as much music as they can. It's up to all people to be accepting of transgender persons, and thus help them transition as best they can.
If you had one piece of advice for transgender musicians, what would it be?
"A late springtime is a springtime nontheless" (another quote from Nietzsche)
Same question, but to musicians in general...
What kind of a future do you see for transgender musicians, and their music?
It's hard to say - Transgender artists are kind of inventing their future as they go along.
But if I may get a little cosmic - I see no reason why they can't fit in the mainstream among all the different styles of music, art and entertainment. Talent is a universal. If you look into the history of marginalized groups that have successfully boken thru into into maintream culture, the wall is first knocked down by a few exceptionally talented individuals, who by sheer force of artistry and greatness of character melt away prejudice. This will happen... this IS happening - with trans artists too.
It's actually one of the wondrous things about life. Just when no one is looking - a very special gifted person arises out of nowhere and changes everything.
You were part of Yolanda's band at one time? (I've interviewed her as well, a year or so ago...)
I have played with him and he has played with me. We began working together around June of 2002. We played many gigs as a duo. Yolanda had some kind of on-again, off-again band when I first met him, but as we worked together I re-arranged many of his old songs, and arranged new ones, as it better suited our combined talents. During this time I helped form a new, more "rock" based band for him, with all new musicians, for which I played lead guitar and sang back-up.
Yolanda and I recorded an ABBA song "Lay Your Love on Me" for the "Abbalicious" ABBA tribute CD. And that's Yolanda singing the gospel chorus near the end of my song "Waiting for Rome to Fall" on my ROCK WIDOW cd. One can hear the song at: http://roberturban.com/mp3.html
What is Gay Guitarists World Wide?
GAY GUITARISTS WORLDWIDE - http://groups.yahoo.com/group/gayguitarists - is the yahoo based internet group for gay-lesbian-bi-transgender electric & acoustic guitarists, bassists and players of all akin stringed instruments. GLBT-friendly musicians & fans are also welcome. It is not limited to guitarists. All kinds & levels of players - students to pros are welcome. One can find musicians, gigs, jams, tour accomodations, private instruction, recording & performance tips. One can make new musical friends; share & discuss guitar techniques, amps, effects, guitar models, great guitarists. One can post pics & create photo albums. There's lots of cool guitar & music related info in our LINKS, FILES & PHOTOS sections. Our homepage photo rotates as we feature a different glbt player each month.
What is your involvement?
I am its founder, moderator and den mother.
Talk a little about your "Guitarist Of The Month" feature.
Each month on GAY GUITARISTS WORLDWIDE I interview in-depth a different glbt member musician of distinction. Each monthly interview is published on the internet and accompanied by a nice photo spread of the featured player (often from live-in-concert photos I've taken of the artist from an Urban Productions show. One can see all our past featured artists at: gayguitaristsworldwide.html
How did this get started, and why.
I enjoy spotlighting glbt musical talent. The glbt world offers plenty of media exposure for divas and frontmen, but not enough for real musicians. I wanted instrumental musicians to feel that they are appreciated.
Generally speaking - I had noticed from my own career, that whenever I was interviewed by the glbt media, most of the questions asked of me were about my being "out" and gay, but not many questions were about my music. I often had the feeling I was being interviewed by someone who was very up on pc gay "out" politics, but not very knowledgeable about music, and especially rock music. For example, a glbt interviewers might focus on the "out" lyrics of a certain song of mine, and only ask me about the lyrics, when my own personal favorite aspect of the song was the guitar solo I played in the middle.
Also, what transgender musicians have you featured?
From month to month - I try to rotate between gay - lesbian - bisexual - transgender players. Of course there are some sub-categories that don't exactly fit any of the above but I try to fit them in too. Trans players that have been featured include guitarist LISA JACKSON, guitarist KRYSTIN HERRINGTON of GURLFRIENDS, British bassist CARL JADZIA of OESTROGENIX, guitarists MARILYN and SARAFINA of LIPSTICK CONSPIRACY. This month the featured player is bisexual guitarist LEXXXIS of the transgender fronted VIBRALUX.
If this is a monthly feature, how can it be accessed?
Can a person nominate someone for the feature?
Yes - all I ask is that whoever nominates and whoever they nominate join and be members of GAY GUITARISTS WORLDWIDE - which is free and they can do so at:
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/gayguitarists - I am happy to check out players to interview and feature; and I'm always looking to discover new talent.
This is kind of personal....your bio said that as a teenager, you performed in rock bands as well as musical theater and stage plays. That's pretty diverse for a teenager.
It's somewhat diverse, but not all that much of a stretch, especially for a gay teen. I sang in my rock band and I also got involved in singing and acting in local theater groups. Teens have a lot of energy
to spread around. LOL - many straight teenage boys will play 4 or 5 different sports all around the same time - and that's considered normal.
Did you face any harassment when you were growing up? What was it like for you growing up, having such a creative streak?
In high school I faced the usual homophobic harrasment from some jocks who would push me around and call me "faggot", etc. It hurt tremendously, (and it's a hurt whose memory never really goes away) but somehow I didn't let it destroy me. I think it helped that I was a kind of crazy artsy hippie teen. It seemed to offer some kind of shamanistic shielding from the stupid neanderthals - as if i possessed the gift of fire or something - LOL. Artistic talent seemed to impress them in a way that made them back off. I was always winning the yearly high school talent show prize, etc, so they were not as hard on me as they were on other gay teens at school.
I think it also helped that I happened to know I was queer at a very early age, and thus I wasn't as confused and frightened about myself as i might have been. I was able to be more cunning and clever in warding off troublemakers. As Auntie Mame says - "Knowlege is Power".
My working-class parents never really quite knew what to make of me. My artistic inclinations really exploded after adolescence, and I pursued music, art and philosophy with great passion all throughout high school and college. I was most fortunate in that my parents and sisters never really caused me any grief about being my being queer. My mother was from Italy, so she had a somewhat better understanding of both artistic talent and homosexuality than many American moms have. And my dad just kinda stayed outta my way. As far as I can tell, I always knew I was gay. I am very, very lucky in having had this be my situation as a youth.
In my older teen years, when I really wanted to pursue electric rock guitar, I did experience some harrasment from other local straight rock musicians, esp guitarists. The thought of a homo in such a hyper-testosterone field as electric lead rock guitar no doubt freaked them out, and sometimes guys were pretty mean to me. It hurt me in a way that's hard to explain, and even caused me to choke as a player at times, as they would do their best to make me feel uncomfortable. I think what really hurt is that I wanted so much to be accepted by them, because I really loved them, and loved playing with them.
Also, what do you consider to be your main musical influences?
My main influences would be all kinds & styles of classical music; and the great rock bands of the mid to late 1960s into the early 70s. This would include the great bands of the mid-sixties British invasion, the great psychedelic bands of the late sixties, and especially the great progressive rock bands of the era - like Yes, King Crimson, etc. I also happen to love the pop music of the great girl groups of the early sixties.
You also majored in flute? How old were you when you started and what got you interested in the instrument? Once again, pretty diverse for a rocker.
My interest in the flute came about when in my youth I discovered the rock group JETHRO TULL. As a teen they were my very favorite band. I couldn't get enough of them. I emulated flutist Ian Anderson. Ergo - the flute. In order to get good at it, I started taking flute lessons at age 15, which introduced me to classical music, which i soon also fell in love with. Because I came late to sight-reading music, I had trouble keeping up with the other music major flute students in college. But I persevered, and practiced my ass off. In my senior year, by secretly memorizing an entire baroque flute concerto, I won the university concerto competiion. Although the other student flutists could actually sight read circles around me, I was the better ham - LOL.
Is there anything you'd really like to say that I might not have asked; or is there anything you'd like to say to the transgender community in general?
I confess I don't know all that much about the overall transgender community, its issues, etc. - I just have some familiarity where I intersect with trans musicians. In our working together, it seems we're always so pressed for time we get right down to the business of learning songs or staging a show, etc. But thru the many fine trans artists I've come to know I have learned much, and have especially learned to not pre-judge. I am always up for learning more.
Robert, thanks so much for doing this, and I'm looking forward to learning more about you and your music. - Sincerely, Pam DeGroff