Lauryl Sulfate is a product of dance music and outsider art. A veteran of Madison dance clubs and the scene surrounding Milwaukee’s long-lost art/fashion space Darling Hall, Sulfate developed an adventurous DIY ethos built on club music and the unfettered “just do it” spirit that fuels outsider art and punk rock. Having sat musically dormant after the breakup of an earlier band, Sulfate, with no one to jam with, turned to GarageBand and her bedroom and went to work. Eventually, some friends got wind of what she was working on and got pulled into/entered her orbit; eventually, Lauryl Sulfate And Her Ladies Of Leisure were born. The group has built up a following while playing throughout Riverwest and Bay View, leading to local showcases at PrideFest and Riverwest FemFest.
This Saturday at Company Brewing, the LOL will celebrate the release of their debut full-length, the aptly named Dance Music Saves Lives—a tribute to the dance music of the bands’ youth, and a love letter to the people on the margins who turned to the club scene to find a sense of belonging. Milwaukee Record sat down with Sulfate to discuss the new record, the role of dance music in Milwaukee and the world at large, and how to work a solid rhyme with words like “Instagram.”
Milwaukee Record: Having come from a DIY background, but focusing on dance music, when you play out, do you specifically seek any styles of music to play with? Do you feel like you’re part of any specific niche or “scene” in town?
Lauryl Sulfate: Part of it is that you end up playing with people you know, as you well know. Or like, you go to a show, and someone pairs you with a band you don’t know, you’re just agreeing to play on someone else’s bill or something, and then you meet the band, and they’re cool. So part of it is just meeting people. I feel like there is a scene of musicians that I know very well, and I don’t necessarily think that they’re people who play the style of music we play at all. They’ve all been really generous, and seem to really enjoy what we do, and maybe it’s because we’re a lot different? I feel like we play with a lot more indie/art rock type folks, which I love. We’ve played with some hip-hop acts and I really do enjoy that, but I always feel a little bit like, some of the rappers are so good, and I feel almost a little bit intimidated by that, like I don’t wanna feel like I’m stepping on anyone’s toes because I rap sometimes. And my rap is a very specific style. I don’t think anyone is gonna mistake it for me trying to be something I’m not.
But it is kind of a weird kind of genre-bender there because it’s more pop than it is anything else. And I don’t think there are a lot of bands that are making pop/dance music in Milwaukee? There’s a lot of EDM bands, and there are some club producers and things, and then there’s hip-hop, which is a really strong scene in Milwaukee. And then there’s the rock bands of Milwaukee, and then there’s people who kind of flow in and out with their indie/art bands. And I feel like we end up playing with anybody because we really don’t fit into one genre…which I hesitate to say because I feel like a lot of people say that as sort of a brag. But it is true that we’re between a lot of genres, so we end up playing with a lot of people.
I like playing with bands that have women in them. That’s one thing I really look for, obviously. That’s one of the reasons I’m really excited about the bill with LUXI and Tigernite, because it’s three different styles that flow really well into each other, and they’re all fronted by a really strong femme presence, and I think that’s great. This doesn’t happen as much in Milwaukee as it used to, but there used to be a strong, like, dude presence…all bands that were all dudes, which was fine, but a lot of them have their own specific way of looking at the world that’s a little bit rockist, and we’re definitely not there.
MR: By naming the album Dance Music Saves Lives, you’re certainly planting your flag in the dance genre, and it seems like the songs are also very posi and life-affirming, so it’s an apt title. Talk to me a little about the subject matter you choose to write about and how that led to an album of posi anthems.
LS: I feel like the band has been trying all these different things for a couple years now, and it all kind of came together when we decided to start working on an album. And there’s a couple of things. One is that me and my songwriting partner, Mark, had pretty similar experiences with music in our youth, and one thing that meant a lot to both of us, that we connected with, was that we both came up in dance clubs in different parts of the dance scene. When I was in high school, the queer kids all hung out together, and they used to have these things called 10% Society dances at UW, which was a huge dance in the ballroom in the Memorial Union in Madison. It was a big deal, and it was all ages, so you could pay your $5 and go and dance to pop music all night long. And it was, like, the gayest music, right? Like you’re listening to remixes of Donna Summer all night long, and it’s fantastic! For someone who’s like 16, and just discovering that they’re maybe bi, but they don’t know what they are, and I’ve got a girlfriend maybe, but I dunno…it’s all confusing, but you have this space where you’re completely free to be yourself. It meant a lot to me, and it meant a lot to my friends, too.
So in thinking about that, and thinking about how all this dance music is considered corny by a lot of the outside world—and sometimes it is corny, you know?—it’s really meaningful and the experiences surrounding it are really meaningful to people.
MR: Things can be corny and meaningful at the same time!
LS: Absolutely! So in naming the album Dance Music Saves Lives, it’s partly because I wanted to make an album that was nothing but bangers. [laughs] It’s always been a deep dream of mine to make an album where you can put on song one and dance all the way through and never take a break. And you can put it on at a party and nobody ever stops? That is like my life goal. Because it [dance music] is joyful music and it means a lot to people, even if it’s corny and it’s silly. Those moments cemented people’s lives.
MR: I think it’s fair to say that even with the existence of queer-core and riot grrl and stuff like that, the majority of rock music, even with all of the queer people involved with it over the decades, has historically presented itself very straight. So, there’s value in putting out music that’s unapologetically out there. Do you feel like putting out blatantly synthetic music in a city that’s very rock-centric does the same for you?
LS: I want to point out that to me, there’s an aspect of this music that’s unapologetically femme. And that’s a thing that I think a lot of women struggle with in making music—that you want to be considered legit. You know, they want to be considered artistically viable. I always use Beck as an example, but everyone wants to be just like Beck and Neil Young, right? I wanted to make music that is unapologetically femme, because the first tapes I ever had were Madonna and Janet Jackson, and that meant a lot to me! And they’re singing about all the same shit that the dudes are singing about. Dudes sing about their heartbreak and sing about their lives and what’s bothering them, and having enough money, and there are these women in pop music who are singing about all the same things, but because the sounds are different, because it’s aesthetically different, it’s aesthetically very femme and feminine and kind of gay? We’re totally putting an aesthetic judgment on it based on the fact that it’s not butch, basically. And so I wanted to address that too with the album. Also I like that stuff. [laughs] I like girly things, so.
MR: When you say how unapologetic the album is, I feel like that comes across in songs like “No Money Millionaire,” where you’re not afraid to tell the listener to piss off here and there. It’s life-affirming but it doesn’t put up with anybody’s shit.
LS: Thank you! That’s a perfect description of the album. I wanna use that in all of our promos from now on. [laughs]
MR: The album is coming out on cassette, which is a big thing in punk/DIY circles right now. What was your rationale for going that route? I’m assuming money was part of it…
LS: Money was part of it, that’s for real. The DIY aesthetic is partially an artistic choice and partially a financial one. You do what you can. But kind of going back to the idea that we had conceptualized the album as a love letter to all the dance music we grew up listening to, there’s also a nostalgia trip behind the album, and you can kind of hear it in a lot of the songs, that they have a retro feel. So, going along with that, I grew up listening to cassette tapes, and making mixtapes for people. I love the object-ness of a tape. I love holding it my hands. I love that when they break you can just get in there with a scissors and some Scotch tape and a safety pin and you can dig it out and make it work again. I never got rid of my Walkman from high school and I still listen to tapes, and I have a stack of blank tapes and will make a mixtape for anyone that will ask me to. So part of it is just that nostalgia trip. I mean, I think we’ll probably eventually release it on CD as well. I don’t know that anyone listens to CDs anymore, but I’m told that’s a thing and I should do it, so okay. Record albums I love too, but you can’t throw them in your pocket.
MR: I also heard that there’s some sort of “fan club” membership in the works? Is that still happening?
LS: This is something that is deeply in the works! We already started it, sort of test-rolled it out. It’s similar to the same idea as things we grew up with and miss, like fanzines. I miss having a hard copy of everything. Having the internet is great, and having social media is fabulous. I love Instagram, I’m really good at Instagram, and I like taking pictures of myself and editing them, I’m not gonna lie, which is another femme thing to do [laughs]. But I also just like the idea of slowing down and being able to hold your media and take it and carry it with you. Mark found an old newsletter that I think his mom had originally contributed to that was an early computer newsletter for people who were into programming, and it was so charming to look at, we were like, “We should do something like this! We should do something like the back of MAD Magazine, where you send us $3 and you get a button that says you’re a member of our fan club!” The idea of having a physical fan club instead of just an online presence was just really appealing.
MR: You do have a ton of social media-themed lyrical references in your music. I feel like, generally, in rock music, references to new technology don’t catch on as quickly as they do in dance or hip-hop. When you’re writing lyrics that reference social media, is there any kind of concern for balancing the idea of capturing a period of time versus whether a song will resonate 10 or 20 years down the road?
LS: I definitely have thought about it, and have written lyrics that I thought were really clever but then asked, “Will this age well?” It’s definitely a fear I’ve had. It’s true that electronic genres and hip-hop tend to be much quicker to pick up on that stuff and incorporate it. I don’t know! I think if you think about a song like [Destiny’s Child’s] “Bills Bills Bills,” I think that’s got some references to media and technology as it was then, and I think it’s aged well for me, although it’s not that old yet. I mean, that whole Destiny’s Child album is pretty dope. “Bug A Boo” has a reference to AOL, which actually always makes me chuckle, like, “AOL, aww, that’s so funny!” So I mean, it is possible, but I think that’s they way it’s been in hip-hop and pop music for a while, and I can still listen to those songs and feel good about ’em.
I dunno, I do worry about it, but I also like the idea of rhyming with “Instagram.” I mean, it’s too juicy, even if it’s low-hanging fruit. Sometimes you’re like, “I have to grab that fruit.” I will go for a lyrical reference if it’s funny to me, and damn the torpedoes.
MR: What do you ultimately want people to get out of your record when they hear it for the first time?
LS: There’s a story that I like to tell from the stage, and I’ll probably tell it at the show. I saw this really great documentary, Soundbreaking, on Hulu. It’s the history of recorded sound in the 20th century. They were interviewing Nile Rodgers, and he was talking about disco, and he noticed that when disco died, basically, things became more fascist, for lack of a better term—I don’t think that’s the term he used. But he was talking about how there was that really famous “Death of Disco” record burning in Comiskey Park, and the thing was supposed to be a publicity stunt for a radio station, but it turned into a riot. Like, there were records burning on the pitcher’s mound, people were punching each other, they were storming the field, and it was like, cruel, right? And the whole premise of it, if you think about it, is cruel. “We’re gonna take this music that we’ve decided is not cool, and nobody likes…” And it’s a super-femme kind of music, it’s a super gay music, it’s a music that was fueled by people of color. People who were marginalized made this music, right? And now, all of a sudden, you have all of these people, kind of like rock fans, all “Fuck disco!” and punching each other, and there’s a riot on the field. To me, it’s not a coincidence that it’s the beginning of the Reagan era, and it’s the beginning of the new conservatism that we experienced, and the idea of the “silent majority,” and this kind of rollback of all of these advances that we made socially in the ’60s and ’70s into this idea of, like, the “nuclear family,” and then you had AIDS coming up right after that, and the decimation of gay populations and the fact that the administration ignored it.
Part of the reason why I made the record is that it’s a really good time, given the current administration, for a new music for marginalized people. So, bringing a disco sound back, bringing dance music back was something I really wanted to do politically and emotionally. I mean, I’m not a person who’s gonna run for office. My skill set is making songs and making art. So what can I do with my art to make it useful to people so that they can survive this bullshit and tell them that they have power? And this is what I came up with. [laughs] My whole goal is letting people know that there are other people who are here for you, and we’re a family together and we don’t have to deal with this bullshit alone.