Justin Tranter of Semi Precious Weapons is Growing Up

Interview with Justin Tranter of Semi Precious Weapons before they performed live at Alt 98.7 at Sunset Towers in Hollywood, Ca April, 2014
Interview with Justin Tranter of Semi Precious Weapons before they performed live at Alt 98.7 at Sunset Towers in Hollywood, Ca April, 2014
Interview with Justin Tranter of Semi Precious Weapons before they performed live at Alt 98.7 at Sunset Towers in Hollywood, Ca April, 2014

Justin Tranter may have known who he was meant to be since the age of 14, but the music of Semi Precious Weapons is still catching up with his creative vision. Evolving from an underground glam rock sound to sing-a-long alternative rock, the edgy four-member band released their third album Aviation last week in debut style, re-introducing themselves to fans.

After a packed house album release last week at Hollywood’s swanky Sayer’s Club (which Tranter describes as “a secret club with the best sound in the world”), Semi Precious Weapons played an Alt 98.7 rooftop private listening party for contest winners at LA’s Sunset Towers this past Wednesday.

Justin Tranter, (l) Semi Precious Weapons chats with Trey Morgan (r) of Alt 98.7 at Sunset Towers in Hollywood, Ca
Justin Tranter, (l) Semi Precious Weapons chats with Trey Morgan (r) of Alt 98.7 at Sunset Towers in Hollywood, Ca

Coming out on stage to chat with radio personality Trey Morgan, lead singer Justin Tranter tells the crowd how it came to be that Semi Precious Weapons opened for Lady Gaga on her Monster Ball tour from 2009 through 2011.  Having met her in the underground New York club scene before she was discovered, Gaga actually got her start opening for SPW.  When she had the opportunity to return the favor “she asked her favorite band,” says Tranter (making a dramatic gesture to himself and fellow band members) to open for her. Tranter goes on to say it was only intended to be for the first two weeks of the tour because Gaga’s management was nervous about their style of music. However, the warm reception Semi Precious Weapons received secured them the gig for two years.

Trey Morgan excuses himself from the stage to let the band play, but a few last minute technical adjustments seem to delay the start. Tranter jokes about this opening not being the grand entrance he’s used to and the crowd laughs.  Playing into his fan’s adoration he announces he’s going to leave the stage and return to make a grand entrance.  Waiting on the side for the sound technicians to finalize the setup, someone in the crowd yells to Tranter, “We can still see you!”

He laughs and ducks down saying, “I’ll hide.”

Upon “re-entry” Tranter and his band bang out thirty minutes of new music from Aviation– music that comes off as phenomenal live. The night is a perfect seventy something degrees and the Southern California crowd sways along like family relating to the lyrics and getting lost in the beautiful scenery of the Hollywood rooftop. “I think this is the most beautiful place we’ve ever performed in. If you look that way,” Tranter says while pointing to his right, “you can see the Hollywood sign, which is almost as beautiful as I am.”  The audience laughs and Tranter looks sublimely happy up on the stage, enveloped in his own space. His warm voice strikes stunning notes while Tranter’s professional–at times frolicsome–stage presence invites the crowd deep into each song.

The band brings their Berklee College of Music training front and center track after track — hitting notes that build momentum while leaving room for vocal accompaniment.  They command the stage with new songs, “Never Going Home” “Scream To the Sky” and “That’s My Friend” (which has the crowd singing along) and close the special show with “Aviation High.”

What you see on stage with Semi Precious Weapons is a genuine reflection of their backstage personalities. Hanging out with them while waiting to interview Justin Tranter before the show, each band member—Cole Whittle, Dan Crean and Stevy Pyne, makes a point to introduce themselves to me. “I’m Cole.  My name is in your name,” the sweet smiling bass player jokes as he reaches out his hand to meet me. Dan and Stevy also take a minute away from their pre-show pizza eating to say hello and chat with me.  When Justin enters the room, we instantly connect eyes and his smile tells me we are going to be friends.

Finding a place to sit down Tranter opens with, “You look great by the way,” and I want to hug him as I say thank you. Finding the perfect outfit to interview a talented designer / rock star is a daunting task (to say the least) especially while also having to take the casual rooftop garden party crowd and mid spring weather into account.  “I only tell the truth,” he says sensing my relief and looking chic himself in a Jake Oliver design.

Semi Precious Weapons at Alt 98.7 at Sunset Towers in Hollywood, Ca: photo credit Nicole Hanratty
Semi Precious Weapons at Alt 98.7 at Sunset Towers in Hollywood, Ca: photo credit Nicole Hanratty

(l to r) Semi Precious Weapons members Cole Whittle, Justin Tranter, Dan Crean and Stevy Pyne

We commiserate over the tempting smell of pizza in which neither of us will allow ourselves to indulge then banter a bit about the album release party the night before amidst the excited buzz in the band filled room. After a minute or two, we decide to relocate ourselves to a quieter setting.

We find an adjacent room with a comfortable couch, close the door behind us and settle in to a therapeutic conversation. For nearly fifteen minutes Justin Tranter pours out his soul to me, leaving no subject off the table, answering hard questions and revealing the pain and healing he endured to create the new album.

Tranter says he feels at home now in Los Angeles and immediately expresses appreciation for the support of Alt 98.7 getting behind Semi Precious Weapons’ new song “Aviation High” (currently listed on Alt 98.7 Top Songs of the Week).  He points out, “New York doesn’t have an alternative radio station.”  Adding, “So here we are at the Alt 98.7 penthouse and they were the first major city to get behind the song and play the song.  So not only is it great to have our release party in LA because it’s home now, but the song’s doing really well here mainly thanks to Alt 98.7.  New York doesn’t have alternative radio which is… You know, New York’s dying very quickly.  I love it but it’s—I mean they don’t have an alternative station and it’s New York City—so that’s a problem.  It’s great to be here.”

I tell Tranter I love the “Aviation High” music video and its cynical take on the family and how it can stifle the individual’s need for self-expression.

Says Tranter, “Lyrically the song is very clearly about that feeling when you’re in love and lust that you feel like you’re high. But the director of the video was really smart about wanting to sort of take it one step further, which was about when you start to kind of figure out who you are and you start to do things that might be scary and even though you might only be able to do them in private at first, it feels so good that you kind of get high. Then you explore these things, the dark things, the more dangerous things, the sexier things, the whatever it is and then you kind of are happier– because you slowly are figuring out who the hell you want to be.”

“Have you figured out who you want to be?” I ask.

Watch Semi Precious Weapons “Aviation High” YouTube Music Videos

“I was very blessed to be born into a really awesome family and then I went to an arts high school in Chicago, and so I’ve been pretty—I mean I’m always learning new things about myself and the stupid things that I do and the way that I ruin all of my relationships or whatever, [laughs] but like the core of who I am I luckily have been pretty in tune with since I was like fourteen or fifteen, which I am so so grateful for.”
I ask Tranter about the song titles on his album, which sound almost celebratory, even while exploring darker themes.

“I think of myself as a very positive person,” he replies, “so lyrically at the end of it I want things to have a sort of positive feeling.  We called the album ‘Aviation’ because it’s about looking upwards and moving forward and being positive.  There’s a sort of glamor to vintage aviation but of course I get sad and heartbroken and lonely and cheated on and everything else like every other person on the planet.  So those darker, sadder, scarier moments are there, but I always choose a more positive title because I’m wanting to—whether I’m trying to convince myself to be happy about some stupid shit that’s happened [laughter] or because I feel like it’s a good thing to do artistically—to have a positive outlook.”

“I think ‘Drink’ is a perfect song, which I think people would think is a total party song…but it actually is quite dark.  I think it’s the darkest song on the album.  It was about a horrible…”  Tranter’s voice fades away.

I help, “You talk about drinking to forget someone.”

“Right,” Tranter regroups saying, “it’s a song about…” He pauses again searching for the right words before he blurts out, “My ex was cheating on me. And I was figuring that out and so that was sort of like drinking to forget the bullshit.” Tranter lightens the moment, “Which I don’t recommend.”  Leaning into the microphone he says loudly, “Especially if children are listening to this.”

I ask Tranter about the song, “Healed,” which he declares his favorite on the album.

“That song is about that feeling when you first have that spark with somebody– whether it’s friendship or it’s romantic or whatever it is when you first have that spark– it’s like, ‘oh my God you’re awesome.’  It can kind of reshape the way you look at—walking to 7-Eleven all of the sudden feels different.  It’s really awesome because you’re with that person.  So walking to 7-Eleven is like a great night out.  I know that sounds stupid, but it’s true.  It’s those little tiny pedestrian things that when you are falling in love or when that stuff is happening that you feel like you are healed and everything is okay and everything is exciting and that song too is about that person then sort of disappearing very quickly in my life. They were there, then they were gone and then I was trying to be like, ‘You know what there’s no reason to be hurt or upset or sad about it.’  It’s just like, ‘I hope that you were healed too. And I hope that whatever you are doing to figure out your shit, I hope it’s working and I only wish you the best.’  Which is a very new thing to me.  If you listen to our old albums I was never that type of person.”

He mimics his old self, “I’m the best and you’re the worst and I hope you die.” We both laugh.  “But I’m growing, I’m growing up,” Tranter says.

I ask him about the track “Scream To the Sky” which I tell him has all the makings of the song of the summer.

“At that time we wrote [“Scream to the Sky”], our career wasn’t really going that great to be honest. We were kind of in a lull, stuck in some record label drama. We couldn’t release music. We couldn’t do anything. So we just kind of wrote it like, ‘at least this is good. We have our best friends, we have music, we have these amazing fans that have become friends. We’re good.’”

Q:  If you had to choose one song title to describe your personality—any song in the world—which would it be?
A:  “Gold Dust Woman” [Fleetwood Mac Rumours album]

Q:  What was the last album you downloaded or purchased?
A:  “Noah Gundersen’s ‘Ledges.’ He had a song on Sons of Anarchy called “Family” that to this day I probably listen to every single day.  Just so beautiful.  He’s amazing.  There’s like 10 songs that I listen to every day.”

Q:  Can you give us more of what you listen to daily?
A:  Patty Larkin “I Told Him That My Dog Wouldn’t Run,” Dave Alvin “King of California,” Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit “Alabama Pines,” Patty Griffin “Icicles,” and Patty Griffin “Nobody’s Crying”

Q:  If you could go back in time and see anyone play live, who would it be?
A:  “I would have loved to be at one of Marilyn Monroe’s USO shows.  There was an amazing exhibit of her at the Brooklyn Museum—I’ve always been obsessed with her—but I saw the exhibit there and there was all these photos and a couple of video clips of her USO shows and they were just–the insane love that she was pouring—it would be amazing to witness that.”
Tranter supports Trans Youth Family Allies
“I identify very much with transgendered culture and trans youth,” Tranter says. Of giving back he adds, “I think everything is a mirror and everything is a reflection.  The more that you give the more that you get.  The more that you give anonymously and selflessly the more that you will get anonymously and selflessly. Things will happen that you didn’t even realize that were a gift and it’s just feels like your normal life.”

SPECIAL NOTE: This interview by Nicole Hanratty can also be seen here on The Backlot. Nicole previously interviewed Jake Shears and Ana Matronic of the Scissor Sisters for The Backlot.

Interview by Nicole Hanratty
Posted April 30, 2014