Listening to songs by The Royal Family and the Poor while writing my last post, I found myself comparing them with those of Scott Stapleton, who has created and contributed to music in various guises: solo, Virgin Forest, Phosphorescent, New Duo.
I first became enamored of Stapleton when viewing the chipped silver laquer of his nails as he played pedal steel on Phosphorescent’s “Song for Zula” at Glastonbury in 2014. It’s just about all we see of him apart from a denim shirt. His picking is tasteful and ensemble (yes that’s an adjective) and contrasts with his keyboard work the year before on Phosphorescent’s “The Quotidian Beasts” at the SXSW music festival. There, he is flamboyant in a red T on the keys, practically conjuring the song’s lyrics as they are sung by Matthew Houck (aka Phosphorescent), with flourishes from his hands and arms.
Backing Houck also are keyboardist Jo Schornikow (a songwriter herself—and Houck’s wife) and percussionist (and photographer) David B. Torch, pictured above, as well as Stapleton’s Brooklyn bandmates in Virgin Forest: drummer Christopher Marine, bassist Jeff Bailey (and sometimes VF’s guitarist Jesse Anderson Ainslie).
While on tour with Phosphorescent in the fall of 2011, Stapleton got into a brawl in Germany and broke his right arm (Vice, 2013) or hand (Stereogum, 2015) or wrist (Interview, 2015) whereupon he wrote the third Virgin Forest album with his left limb while recuperating in his native Florida after two surgeries and nearly a year in a cast. Since his bandmates presumably still were on the road, the album, titled VF3, is heavy on the keys, essentially a second solo work. (VF3 finally was released in February of 2015. Promo videos here are presented in the album’s sequence.) By way of introduction, Stapleton has a cameo, La Croix can-in-hand, at the top of “OK”; the “La Croix” promo and others are created by Matthew J. Walker, Stapleton’s eventual musical collaborator (about which more below).
WARNING: Videos on this page contain strobe sequences.
In “W.I.H.” the macro, pictured by the terrestrial globe, is contrasted with the micro: disco balls and a personal relationship. It’s a rare instrumental for Virgin Forest, fraught with anticipation of a vocal that never delivers and, to my mind, a crisis in climate that delivers big-time.
Longing and obsession are among Stapleton’s lyrical themes. But as suggested above, sexual and gender expression/repression also are visual representations. Two promos for Virgin Forest’s prior releases touch on these as well…
With “My Sister Said” Stapleton covers Michael Gira’s challenging ballad dealing with familial abuse. It was released in early 2009 on the B-side of a four-song vinyl EP, but was not included on Virgin Forest’s debut album Joy Atrophy (2011).1 In turn, Stapleton omits Gira’s final refrain and coda, somewhat softening it in a way that’s just as disturbing as the original. Although I know not the intent of the promo’s maker—Dan Asher (and his “boxers of the future”)—I offer this for all boys like me who had no interest in learning how to fight.
“Don’t Be Afraid” leads off Virgin Forest’s second album Easy Way Out (2012). It reminds me of being an essentially bridge-and-tunnel person upon my first visit to New York in about 1980 (I was crashing in New Jersey), walking St. Mark’s Place, inquiring about any local vinyl I might not be able to acquire in L.A. I think all I came away with was a Mumps single.2
In about 2016 Scott Stapleton teamed up with Matthew Walker—the man behind the camera but also a member of Brooklyn-based Dead Dream. The new project and album are called New Duo. To a great extent it’s an extension of VF3 but more hard-edged electronically, matched guitarically. The album was heralded two months before its release by a notice in SPIN and a promo video for the song “Let Me Go,” the first in which Stapleton appears fleetingly to have the same gaze as the late actor Frank Silva’s “Bob” from Twin Peaks. (See also New Duo’s Instagram post from Halloween that year.)
Walker and Stapleton’s friend, the self-proclaimed “sound junkie” Myke C-Town, introduced two of the Duo’s promo videos upon the album’s release in the fall of 2016. “I Made a Movie,” which was shot in Cuba with Alisa O’Connor, features the song’s “friend” Raudel Triana Lugo among others. “I Never Got Her Name” stars Lucy Balls (@lucy.balls, on mic), Untitled Queen (@untitledqueen, on guitar), Alisa O’Connor (@alisapants, on keys), and Cara Merendino (@caraschmara, on drums).
New Duo announced the imminent release of a new album on Instagram in the summer of 2017, but it dropped a year later. The last full-length video was shot that summer of ’17 by O’Connor, Walker, and Stapleton, and uploaded that October.
My take from all of the choices Scott Stapleton and his collaborators have made is that he is sort of a Morrissey3 in reverse: a rocker on the straight end of the thorny binary who sings gender-neutral songs and then shoots a video for “La Croix” at Xanadude, a gay disco event that could, mm, decamp from a loft in Brooklyn to one in the East Village.
Followed by the promo for “West Palm Beach” in which he sings, that “after 200 days”:
Now that the damage is done
I’m under the sun
And all I’m left with is just this fantasy
You remain buried in my brain
At this rate you’ll take over completely
It almost sounds like a reflection on whatever caused that fight in Germany.
Next, in the promo for “Dream,” Stapleton portrays the apparent inamorato of a relatively uninhibited drag queen (played by the aforementioned Untitled Queen) who comes knocking in a summer dress in the snow only to get the cold shoulder. Given the video’s premise, to whom does Stapleton give voice?
Let’s recall and then forget for a moment that Stapleton, in “I Made a Movie,” IDs a gender, not quite as rare as that Virgin Forest instrumental. He does so only after employing another, imprecise, pronoun.
Somebody told me
They loved me
But I pushed him away
I don’t feel the same
Stapleton’s obviously comfortable in his skin. As he becomes even more masculine superficially with bared torso in New Duo’s promo for “Let Me Go,” he also wears the leather-jacketed drag of that persona in “Believe.” And then in-between there’s the forward femininity of “Never Got Her Name” via the “newer duo” of Untitled Queen and Lucy Balls, as well as the irony of the song’s title and the androgyny of the vocal—scrambling things into a pretty mess, the uneven chroma key backdrop included. And so by way of all of this, the gaydar of, say, someone like me of a certain age, is amplified, trifled with, and trashed.
Just as Brian Eno’s personal proclivity for effeminate clothing coincidentally converged with glam in the 1970s,4 whatever interests Stapleton and his cohorts have in drag and further representations are part of a cultural phenomenon just this side of mainstream in the 2010s. It appears to move beyond inclusion and tolerance on the one hand but raises questions of appropriation on the other.
A sort of middle ground is discussed by Stapleton in his comments to IFC about the promo for “Don’t Be Afraid.” (It was worth reading the entire brief interview, including his motivation for writing the song in the first place, but IFC pulled the interview as of October 23, 2020.) Regarding the promo’s star, Mason Chambers King:
He fits the aesthetic of our ideal for this record — he’s a non-denominational “genre” character. He is a musician, artist, model, and a good friend of mine, and he’s only 21 if you can believe that. Mason is a genuine, down-to-earth dude in reality, and the song is a very honest one; he responds to that kind of thing. […]
I also picked Mason because I wanted the character to be androgynous; I wanted the record to be as well.
Finer details concerning that “aesthetic” are not explained. Perhaps they don’t need to be? The song’s repeated line is “Don’t be afraid of my love.” Exactly. Stapleton follows this up later in the album with “Song for Nino,” which can be read as describing an intergenerational infatuation and/or one between two with different bodily ’bilities. Anon I’ll likely read that the song’s addressed to his chihuahua.
And so what of the Royal Family and the Poor correlation with Scott Stapleton? I can’t point to a single proper correlation, but listen to the band’s first album fronted by Mike Keane and see what you think. (From my notes: “I Love You,” “Radio Egypt,” “Discipline,” and “The Dawn Song.”)
- The EP is led by “South Beach,” and was recorded by Houck in his Brooklyn Navy Yard studio.
- The Mumps had an association with New York but that 1978 single (I got the second pressing) has L.A. written all over it. Years later my musical partner Rob Berg and I would work with Mumps’ lead singer Lance Loud in a Halloween small stage production coordinated by John Fleck.
- Regarding Morrissey, see my discussion in A Taste of Honey.
- See my tangential discussion of Eno in Everybody Dance Now 2.