A Conversation with Half of Penis
Part band, part art project — Penis is Samara Davis and Sophia Cleary. They play catchy, unvarnished punk, and they’ve had an EP produced by Sara Landeau of The Julie Ruin. In November, they’ll be doing a miniature East Coast tour. I spoke to Sophia over Gchat about the band and how people react to it. (Disclaimer: Sophia and I are cousins. We performed “MMMBop” together at our great aunt’s nursing home about twenty years ago, but it wasn’t very well received.)
Rebecca: What was the origin of Penis?
Sophia: I think it really stems from our friendship. We kept joking that we should start a band, but I had only taken piano ten years ago and Samara didn’t know how to play any instruments. So for a while our “band” existed without any actual music playing or even a name. Eventually our friend Neal Medlyn suggested we make a band called Fecal Penis, to which we responded “Yeah, probably not.” Then our friend Joey suggested we just drop the “Fecal” and history was made.
Rebecca: How do you feel bands like Penis and like, I guess Chastity Belt for example, have used humor as a weapon?
Sophia: I mean… they’re RAW names. Or that ’70s British punk band, PENETRATION — that was the seed of Penis for sure. What I think is funny, or cute, is to use the word Penis as the unifying title of a feminist punk band. It jars people a little bit, brings into question how anatomy is essentialized, how it can be (re)defined, and thought about differently. I think humor is cool because it can be disarming…Like our on stage banter is really polite and meek and quiet, and then in between those moments we’re like literally screaming about masturbation. If people are made uncomfortable by us, especially cis men, I’m okay with that. They don’t have to stay for the show.
Rebecca: Yeah, it seems like something that people immediately understand. Like, Tallulah Willis (Bruce Willis and Demi Moore’s daughter) was recently seen wearing your shirt, right?
Sophia: Yeah, but we have NO idea if she knows that we are a band. We kind of doubt she knows. We actually asked her to tag us on Instagram and she said she would and then she tagged someone else, so we were like, ok nvm! I’m fascinated by people who love to wear the shirts.
This is the thing about naming your band Penis — it’s this performative device that goes beyond just being a band. People have to say the word, which a lot of time you can tell they’re struggling to say it! Like curators or whoever, we’ll get a lot of emails about “our band.” Which totally goes back to the humor about it for me — just this very simple problem of saying the name of genitalia. I feel like of all the names for genitalia “penis” has this un-sexy, powerlessness to it. Like COCK is so strong you know? PUSSY, such a fucking powerful word.
Rebecca: Penis sounds so vulnerable.
Sophia: IT’S SO VULNERABLE. I mean Samara and I are SO interested in/invested in vulnerability and that is so much a part of our stage presence as well. We re-start our songs all the time, we mess up. We really put the inconsistencies on display and I think that speaks to the vulnerability of how the word penis feels. And graphically too, like the little, lonely word Penis. All on its own. As our logo.
Rebecca: What’s Penis’s stance on Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature?
Sophia: We are happy for Bob. That is my only comment. I am not a huge Bob Dylan fan, so I’m scared to even talk about it because people always flip out.
Rebecca: Bob Dylan is too wimpy! If it had to be a dad folk musician it should’ve been Stan Rogers.
Sophia: Totally. My dad hates Bob. So yeah, maybe that’s it. Fucking Christ, it all becomes clear. Can’t escape FATHER’S TASTE. HAHAHAHA. New album name.