Ambition can be a good thing if you have a plan–it can bite you in the ass if you don’t. When I met up with The Sexual Side Effects at Park Grounds on a recent, typical, humid-as-hell Sunday afternoon for an interview and beers, I’d deliberately–and foolishly–placed myself in the latter category: I’d decided I would improvise and not write down my questions. I was familiar enough with the Atlanta band’s general history and a fan of their debut EP High Maintenance, released earlier this year. I felt like I could go in ambitiously and let the conversation flow spontaneously.
Big mistake. I say that because even though it’s a newer band, the Sexual Side Effects’ members–Amber Taylor (vocals/guitar/keyboards/songwriter), Mike Sidner (bass), Ryan McDougall (guitar) and Clay McClure (drums)–have extensive backgrounds as musicians and the savvy for what it takes to cut an entry into the music industry. And these three love to talk about their craft. A lot.
And while that may sound like every other up-and-coming band out there struggling to get known, there are still a few unique things about The Sexual Side Effects that set them apart from those other bands, especially in the Atlanta scene. Namely: Taylor is a transgendered woman, McClure is gay, and Sidner and McDougall are straight.
Born from early incarnations, rotating lineups and changing band names starting in 2007, they gelled officially as The Sexual Side Effects in 2011. They amicably parted ways with their original guitarist earlier this year and have since welcomed McDougall.
With musical influences like Joan Jett, The Cure, David Bowie, T-Rex, Neil Peart of Rush and a shitload of others, it’s safe to say that The Sexual Side Effects’ music has a decidedly pronounced rock vein that has been injected with a heady overdose of post-punk and glam.
What’s the hardest part about being a Sexual Side Effect?
Taylor: The hardest part is trying to make a living doing it and trying to make it your day job. That’s the goal of every band. Well, maybe not every band. Some bands just wanna have fun and get drunk. We take this very seriously. I want to have fun, but I also don’t want to be a fuck up. I wanna do something amazing in the world. Travel the world, go to everywhere and touch people’s lives.
So it’s like Almost Famous? The love of the music becomes your whole life?
Taylor: Yeah. For me, it’s just a gift that we all have. It’s foolish to waste it. We have something that has to be used, we have a purpose. So that’s why we all work really freakin’ hard. I slept four hours last night, just up doing all the other crap so we can play music. The other thing I say to a lot of people recently is you literally have to fight warfare just to play music.
Plan your strategies and lay out your battle plans?
Taylor: Yeah, cause sometimes you lose the battle. We lost the battle on a couple of tours and shows. But as long as you can live to fight another day. It’s hard to get people out, especially when it’s across the country or across the world. You’ve got to have the right promotional network set in place.
McClure: Yeah, a lot of strategy goes into it. We get requests to play shows here in town with people, and for a while we had to turn down a lot of it because we don’t want to play too often. People get tired of coming out after a while.
So in other words, you worry about local burnout if you play too many gigs here?
McClure: Yeah, we talk to Gavin, the booker over at the Drunken Unicorn, and he actually doesn’t subscribe to that philosophy. He thinks you should play as much as you can. But everything we’ve read and understood about how to put on a good show is that you can’t play too often. When you do play, you have to make it an event, something that people want to go to. Not just, “Oh yeah, we’re playing next weekend too and the weekend after that.”
Taylor: I mean, that’s great in the beginning until you build up your fan base or whatever. I hate to say it, but the way it works is scarcity. When a band comes to town here on tour and you’re not going to see them again for a year or two, then you really wanna see them… That’s really the number one rule in music: always leave them wanting more. We’ve actually been really successful here though, as far as attendance and press and a lot of radio. But it’s time to move on and spread the message to other places.
You want to spread the Sexual Side Effects gospel?
Taylor: Yeah, exactly! Spread side effects to more places.
Spread sex to more places!
Sidner: I like that philosophy.
McClure: The challenge for us is we know that we’re not just your typical weekend party band, jam band or whatever. We know that we’re working on something serious and wanting to go somewhere. But trying to convince bookers and promoters that we’re serious, that we’re gonna work hard, that we’re gonna draw a crowd–if they haven’t worked with us before, that’s really hard. For the first show with this new lineup, Amber had to call the guy or go into the place every day.
Taylor: It took, like, three months. And when we finally played, we got almost 80 people there on a Thursday night, which is crazy. When they came to do settlement at the end of the night, he came over with two shots of Jager, which I was not drinking. He was like, “Oh my gosh! All these people!” I said, “Well, that’s what I tried to tell you on the phone but you didn’t listen.”
The thing I love about the band is that you have these diverse rock influences like T-Rex and Jesus & Mary Chain. Do you think the fact that you’re pulling all that into your music makes it hard to draw local crowds, especially with Atlanta being a big hip-hop and crunk capital?
Taylor: Yeah. But that’s something that’s done by the major record labels. They create these scenes.
McClure: But the good thing is we’ve played at some of these festivals and had sort of a built-in crowd.
Literally, captive audiences?
McClure: Yeah, to a point.
Taylor: With those festivals, it’s exposure, but it’s mainly an excuse to get radio play and press as well. You get the full monty of promotions.
McClure: When you’re playing at a festival, people who wouldn’t normally go to a rock concert and are at that festival for another reason will hear your songs and realize you’re not Metallica. Even if this is not technically considered rock music or alternative, they’ll like it.
I want to transition to the trans issue, no pun intended. Amber, you and the guys made a conscious decision to not put your trans status front and center or to make it a core aspect of the band. Why?
Taylor: I mean, we didn’t hide it in the name. That’s what it means. It’s kind of in-your-face, but not really.
Yeah, but you’re not The Trans Effects. You kind of coded it a little bit.
Taylor: We may have to change it to Man Whore now [nodding toward Sidner].
Sidner: Somebody called me that yesterday. “Are you that man-whore guy in that band?”
Well, if you’ve gotta have a good reputation, that’s probably the best one.
McClure: Well, as with the trans thing, I’m gay but it doesn’t affect my drumming.
You’re a drummer who happens to be gay?
McClure: Right. I want people to hear my music and not have it be negative in some way.
Have you guys ever caught flack for being in a band with a trans front woman?
McClure: Not me. I hang around with all kinds of people.
Sidner: Not really. It’s not like, “Oh shit, I had no idea!” or whatever. Who cares, you know?
McClure: I think people, if anything, poke fun at the band more for Amber’s vocal Facebook presence than anything. “Oh yeah, you’re in that band with that woman who won’t shut up!”
Sidner: The one who’s always breaking Facebook.
Taylor: Oh, sorry! But it got people out to our shows. I’m a social person. I like to get to know people, and Facebook’s just been really cool for meeting people. Being in a band is a very social thing. We’re gonna drive around the freaking country, so we’re developing a network of people that we know.
So with your use of social media, are a lot of people slowly learning about who you are in your trans status?
Taylor: The funny thing about that is I’m lucky in that you can’t really tell, and most people are like, “Amber’s hot!” It’s a little bit of a different story.
McClure: We talk about those issues openly in gay media and gay press. We don’t hide them from other media, but we don’t make it a point to bring that up. That was a strategic decision for us. We didn’t want to be a gimmick band. We wanted it to be a possible revelation later on, like “Famous rock star Amber Taylor comes out as trans.” That’s a newsworthy item. As base as that is, we wanted to be able to use that as a sound bite.
Taylor: Again, it just comes down to it’s about music. I just want to get on stage and play in front of people. That’s pretty crazy. It’s hard for people to just get up on stage and play, period. Now, we don’t care. We get up, and we don’t even pay attention to the audience. We just look at each other and connect.
Amber has this passion for music that’s been in her gut forever and drives her. Has that been the case with you guys too?
Sidner: Yeah. I remember the first time. It was a Pink Floyd song. I forgot what song it was, the name of the song. “Hello, hello, is there anybody out there?” I heard that song and my brother was doing some artwork in a hotel. We were in the middle of moving, so we were staying in a Residence Inn or some shit. I come in and he’s blasting that song and doing some artwork, and right then for some reason it clicked. “That’s what I wanna do. I wanna play music.” I was ten years old then, but I didn’t pick up an instrument until I was about thirteen. My dad didn’t want anybody playing music. Everybody should be a big businessman.
Taylor: I think we both share the same thing in our lives.
A lot of musicians suffer that early curse, don’t they? Parents want you to choose a career that’s traditional?
Taylor: Well, in reality we are [traditional]. Being do-it-yourself, you’ve got to work harder and be even more responsible like the traditional business person. It’s like opening a Subway restaurant or the gas station on the corner, but we’re not getting a loan. We’re doing it out of our houses, and we’re doing it little by little every paycheck that we get. I cashed in my Roth IRA for this. If this falls apart, I’m screwed.
You basically have to work on the band until you drop dead because you have no retirement now?
Taylor: Yeah, but it doesn’t matter because I would gladly trade in all the money of a retirement some day when I’m 70, if I ever make it that old, for the opportunity to tour the fucking world and play in front of thousands of people and touch people’s lives and do awesome shit. That’s fucking cool.
Photo Credit: Christy Parry
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