Interviewing Samara Davis and Sophia Cleary about their punk band is an exercise in willpower. It felt like no matter the topic we discussed, it was always punctuated by a double entendre and followed by a long guffaw or a hearty snort. How can you not acknowledge the elephant in the room — er, in this case the giant dong in the room — when you’re discussing a band called Penis?
“It goes way beyond a poke at men, I think,” said Sophia, the drummer for Penis. “It can be that, but it just very quickly unravels into a whole other terrain…”
“About language,” chimed in Samara, who mans Penis’ bass. The two of them agreed that even beyond that, the name’s also about “queer redefinitions” and reimagining gendered language. “Or just that two women can be one phallus,” Sophia concluded.
In short, Penis means a lot to Samara and Sophia.
Their music is is stripped-down, bare-bones punk at its catchiest. Samara crafts plucky, solid bass lines backed by Sophia’s drumming that’s at once primitive and exacting. The duo harmonize on most tracks, but Samara leads with a voice that’s charmingly squeaky, but grounded by growls and purrs.
“Obviously, Riot Grrrl is a huge influence,” Sophia said. “And one of the reasons why we started the band, is that we saw the documentary about Kathleen Hanna.” In the Punk Singer, it’s revealed that (like many punk musicians) Hanna wasn’t exactly a virtuoso when she started Bikini Kill. “Hearing them talk about not knowing how to play their instruments in the beginning was so validating,” Sophia continued. “We were like, ‘Hell yeah, we can do that.'”
Penis also cited Kate Bush and ESG as major influences.
Their songs are instantly familiar, drawing heavily on the self-conscious but enormously confident attitude of Riot Grrrl. There’s a purpose in sharing their experiences– it’s not navel gazing, but rather a kind of soul-bearing in hopes of confirming for their listeners that they’re not alone in their inner workings. The lyrics are self-referential, but never saccharine. And on tracks like, “Too Big To Fail,” they’re brutally honest about sex, body image, and anxiety.
“Need to work out, but I can’t stand running/ Running from myself, just wanna be cumming/ Cumming all the/ Cumming all the/ Cumming all the time.”
And like their Riot Grrrl sisters, the girls of Penis are outspoken feminists. “Yes, the name is funny, but we definitely have real rage that comes out,” Sophia explained. “Penis is an expression of joy and rage.”
The name says it all, really. The duo are hyper-aware of the power the word “penis” holds and the implications for some of the most important conversations happening in our particular wave of feminism: gender fluidity, the trans experience, and empowerment through dismantling the patriarchy. And the Penis girls are no strangers to denouncing fuq bois.
Though they only had their first show in September 2014 (at Baby’s All Right, alongside their friend Anand Wilder’s band, the Seltzer Boys), Penis has blown up big time, so to speak. They’ve played in venues on both coasts, recorded and released an EP (which Kathleen Hanna shouted out on Twitter) and landed a big show alongside Champagne Jerry happening tonight at the Kitchen– not too shabby for just over a year of existence, and really not bad at all for considering where Penis was at when they got started.
It probably helped that Sara Landeau from Kathleen Hanna’s current band, The Julie Ruin, also happened to be Sophia’s drum teacher. “She’s been a huge support person throughout this process, and not only a great teacher, and recording us and stuff,” Sophia explained. “She really urged us to record and she’s working on becoming a producer too.”
But most of the credit for Penis’ progress should still go to Samara and Sophia, two best friends who met in grad school at NYU’s Performance Studies program. “In the busyness and tumult of New York City life, we needed a way to hang out more,” Sophia, now a full time artist, recalled. “And the band was a great way to do that, and it was like a focused thing to do.”
Samara, who’s completing her PhD at NYU, figured that a band would be a good way to flex some of her less-utilized creative muscles. “I don’t identify as an artist, but Sophia brings the artist out in me,” Samara explained.
They both admit that Penis started out as “a joke,” but quickly grew serious– that is, once they started playing music. “Well, you can’t take yourself too seriously, especially when you don’t know how to play your instruments, at all,” Samara explained. Though Sophia had some serious piano experience and said she’d “played around in a few bands” while in college in Vermont, the drums were totally new to her. “All that experience allowed me to learn the drums really quickly and with quite a bit of ease, because I already knew how to read music. It was a quick learning process for me, but Samara on the other hand,” Sophia laughed.
“I didn’t know shit,” Samara said matter-of-factly. “It’s funny too, because I didn’t know Sophia had that much experience and I was just like, ‘Well, I guess Sophia’s just better than me.'”
The friends sat on Penis for a while, mulling it over in their heads. Well, we’re getting ahead of ourselves, actually. This was before Penis was even a twinkle in Sophia and Samara’s eyes. It was actually Champagne Jerry, aka their good friend Neal Medlyn, who first suggested they call their band “Fecal Penis,” jokingly of course. “We were like, ‘Um, no,” Sophia laughed.
But this “Fecal Penis” stuck with them. Then another friend had some wise advice. “Joey was like, ‘Just drop the ‘fecal,'” Samara recalled. “And Penis was born.”
Samara admitted that at times, she was feeling around in the dark. “The few songs that I wrote– Sophia was explaining to me one practice, ‘There isn’t really a structure to these songs, like, at all,'” she laughed. “I guess it wasn’t a conventional structure at all. I just had no idea what a song was.”
But Samara has definitely come a long way, when I saw Penis play yesterday at their practice space, she was clearly very comfortable holding a bass, and singing into the mic– two things that many people just starting out with music have a hard time doing simultaneously. But with Samara, there was no hint that she was new. She belted out catchy riffs on the bass like she’d been doing it for years.
In a way, Penis has been an unexpected reversal for both of them. For Samara, who had no background in music, it was completely new. And for Sophia, it was returning to an art form she’d grown sick of. “I definitely was like a person who would go to shows, and I was invested in the music world when I was a teenager and in my early 20s, but I definitely became more interested in dance and performance, so I started putting my energy there,” Sophia said.
At one point, she decided, “I just couldn’t go to shows anymore.” She recalled: “Just standing at a rock show, it seemed really just self-serious in a way I couldn’t handle at all– someone leaning over, like, a gadget.” Even while living in Amsterdam, Sophia experienced the same problem. “It was completely humorless noise music,” she said. “That was kind of the end for more. I don’t care how much jazz you have under your belt, this is so boring.”
But instead of simply leaving dance and other kinds of performance behind, they’ve both incorporated those things into Penis’ stage presence. “We definitely think about performance when we do this,” Samara explained. “We always say that it’s about ‘undermining a sense of musical mastery.’ We’re creating an energy and we’re creating something that’s hopefully enjoyable to look at.”
They both pointed to the importance of maintaining a certain kind of vulnerability, one that comes with performing in front of an audience. “I think our friendship performs itself on stage– we feel really comfortable being vulnerable up there, and supporting one another in our vulnerability.” Sophia said. “There’s not this commitment to looking cool or anything,” she paused for a moment. “Or maybe there is secretly, I dunno.”
Though the band has strong political commitments and both Samara and Sophia are outspoken feminists, their message is always coupled with a potent blend of humor. This allows their message to be both approachable and relatable but also smart and meaningful. “You’re less defensive when you’re in a humorous context, you’re able to see different things when you’re disarmed in that way,” Samara said. Deadly serious political punk (and a great deal of political art) can often feel sappy, or self-righteous. Penis, on the other hand, emphasizes how open they are, hence calling themselves a “transformative punk band.” And it’s not just an empty phrase.
“To commit to something that’s fun and pleasurable with my best friend– that’s transformative,” Samara explained. “Now I have a better perspective on the things that are bringing me down, that they might just be the things that everyone experiences.”
But “transformative” also translates to Penis’ intersectional approach to feminism. “Transformation really speaks to our feminism— we’re committed to learning, and to this idea of going against mastery, it’s something we apply to life too,” Samara said. “You have to keep checking your privilege, it’s so important [for us] to keep challenging ourselves.”
And beyond that, Penis say they’re open to new ways of thinking, perspectives that challenge their own, and even being called out. “We’re looking to be destabilized in our knowing and our knowledge, like our knowledge is never complete and I think that’s part of our feminism,” Samara explained. “We’re open, but we’re also fierce.”
Check out the Penis EP below and scoot to their show at the Kitchen tonight starting at 8 pm, tickets: $15