Clearly, fear doesn't plague Portland-via-Arkansas trio Gossip (formerly the Gossip). Plus-sized, openly gay powerhouse vocalist Beth Ditto doesn't think twice about stripping down to her skivvies onstage as she ferociously belts out her sexual and political lyrics, revealing both her outer and inner self. The band wasn't worried about jumping to a major label, regardless of any protests that move might incite from the indie-punk underground it inhabited for nearly a decade. And the three didn't fret about heading into the studio with celebrated producer Rick Rubin, despite having written no songs and having zero clue what they were going to create for their Columbia debut.
"We just sort of showed up with our equipment and jammed in the studio with Rick," guitarist and keyboardist Nathan "Brace Paine" Howdeshell says over the phone from Los Angeles, where he, Ditto, and drummer Hannah Blilie are preparing for an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! "That's the way we've always done it. But that's what makes it so much fun — the mystery, the unknown."
Music for Men, the cheekily titled result of their efforts that was released in June, marks newer, much dancier territory. Gossip hasn't entirely abandoned the past — Ditto's bluesy howls and the shard-spraying six-strings in "8th Wonder" and "Spare Me from the Mold" see to that. But the better part of Men is spirited yet stripped-down disco-funk with snap-crack beats, staccato guitar, shoulder-shrug bass, Studio 54 synth-shimmer, and the occasional cowbell. Ditto's strong vocals and empowering lyrics come off as more modern-day Donna Summer than punk Aretha Franklin.
The music isn't the only thing that's changed. "In a way, everything's different now," Howdeshell says. "We're on a major label, so we're reaching a wider audience. There's a different vibe about everything that's happening. But I'm happy that we're not in a position where everyone in the audience is a total douchebag. I feel like we still play shows to weird kids who like weird music."
That said, there remain pitfalls to navigate and stands to be taken in keeping with Gossip's punk roots. "We've been offered lots of stupid things and we turn them all down," Howdeshell says. "The label hates us, because we say no to everything. We've been a band for 10 years, and when you want to keep it going a long time, it's all about doing the things that make you comfortable. There's been a few things where the label's like, 'You get to go on tour with Lady Gaga!' and we're like, 'No thanks!'"
The guitarist calls the list of all the acts they've turned down tours with "hilarious": Pearl Jam, the Who, Pink, Christina Aguilera. "We've played a couple of those big arena shows before, and people hate us," he adds. "Even when we played with Sonic Youth in Seattle, like, five years ago, the crowd was like, 'Boooo! Get off the stage!' Imagine us playing with Pearl Jam in Georgia? There'd be bombs thrown onstage!"
Okay, perhaps that's something to fear. But Gossip certainly isn't worried about notions of "selling out," or critical reaction to its new sound. Nor are the three fazed by the potential for increased attention to their personalities or appearances.
"I think there's already been a lot of focus on Beth's appearance and her beliefs, and she handles it really well," Howdeshell says. "As far as me and Hannah, we're happy just to be onstage and playing our instruments. I don't care what anybody says or writes about us, as long as we can still connect with each other and the people who come to see us."