The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #133: Jake Shears

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If “I Don’t Feel Like Dancin’” and Patti Smith’s Just Kids mated, you’d get Jake Shears’s Boys Keep Swinging.

With its gorgeous sense of place, the memoir skips from Arizona to Washington to New York as Shears—of Scissor Sisters fame—guides us through his life, his loves, and his music.

It’s all quite glorious.

I spoke to Shears recently, just after he wrapped up his starring role in Broadway’s Kinky Boots, about masturbation, fame, and writing fiction.

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The Rumpus: I wasn’t prepared for how much this memoir is about longing—for a relationship or normalcy or some quiet.

Jake Shears: I guess it runs through the whole book, doesn’t it? Kind of from the get-go. And those desires change. It’s a story of wish fulfillment, I guess—you realize you need other things on top of that.

Rumpus: It seems like you verge on being content but maybe never quite get there.

Shears: That’s a funny thing: I don’t know if it’s ever a good thing to be completely content. I’m a person who’s not, throughout my whole life, ever found myself totally content. Maybe at various moments, but the moments where I’ve just settled in to my life and let life happen around me are never as fulfilling as when I’m discontented.

It’s so funny: I finished Kinky Boots and did almost a hundred shows. It was really quite the experience and a huge accomplishment for me, and yet I’m waking up this morning thinking, Oh, it’s just so weird. It’s almost like I can’t sit in those things for too long. I’m really proud of what I did, but immediately I’m like, Okay, what am I supposed to be doing right now?

Rumpus: There’s the moment after you guys win all those BRIT Awards where you realize it’s sort of all downhill. You’re sort of making a good argument for not precisely accomplishing what you set out to do.

Shears: Either that or being prepared for it. I didn’t have some extra goals in my back pocket at that time, you know what I mean? I didn’t have my fingers in anything else. That was my whole life. That particular night, I remember thinking, God, when you hit that spot, it can be kind of a letdown because where else do you go from there? But I think I had a narrow view, at the moment, of what my life was, of what I was capable of.

Rumpus: Are you better prepared now to deal with success?

Shears: Oh, I think so, or at least I don’t place as much importance on the surface success of something. My definitions of success have kind of changed. Just in the past four months, I’m very proud of the fact that I was able to learn how to do this thing that I never thought I could do. The parties and the billboards and all that stuff is a blast, and it’s really sweet, but it’s not the core of it. If you end up looking at surface-level success and putting your own self worth into that, it can be really empty.

I wrote this book. I worked really, really hard on it, and I was a little scared by it. And I was really bummed out when I finished it.

Rumpus: Why?

Shears: When something’s done that you put that much work into, it’s just a strange feeling. It was such a part of my life for a couple of years. It was hard to let go.

Rumpus: I liked that you end the memoir on a high note career-wise. Not a peak, necessarily, but you’re feeling pretty good.

Shears: I didn’t want to write a history of the band, and so I decided to have a portion of how the band started and all that, and then just end it there. I didn’t want it to be the story of Scissor Sisters. I wanted it to be my story.

Rumpus: In the first half of the book, there’s not really much about music, which was sort of surprising.

Shears: I talk about the stuff I was into and the concerts I was going to, but I never really learned more than five chords on the guitar. Being in a band was kind of a dream in my back pocket, but I had no idea if that was going to be my whole life. I wanted to be a creative person, but I didn’t know what form that was going to take.

Rumpus: Somewhat late in the book, you describe people buying your records: “I looked into their eyes and wondered what they were seeing.” It’s a perfect description of the weirdness of celebrity.

Shears: Because people project stuff onto you. I remember sitting there. It was a very distinct memory, being like, Wow, we’re sitting at a table signing autographs. What are they projecting onto me that I’m not aware of? And I still wonder that sometimes. I meet a lot of people. I’ve definitely got some new fans [from] doing Kinky Boots. People are so sweet. A lot of people will never know what you’re actually like, so often I wonder, “Who is it you’re seeing across from you because I don’t know if that necessarily the person that I am?”

Rumpus: How many people in your life, do you think, know the real you?

Shears: Oh, God. I think anybody that actually just knows me. I’ve got a lot of friends and people that I work with. I’m a super-connected person. I kind of wear everything on my sleeve.

I threw a party Sunday night for the end of my run in Kinky Boots. I threw it at Club Cumming, where the original Wonder Bar used to be, which is the first bar I ever went to in New York. All my old roommates that I write about in the book—people I hadn’t seen in twenty years—showed up to that thing. It was like a This Is Your Life or something.

When I go onstage as Jake Shears playing concerts, it’s definitely some kind of magnified version of myself. It was interesting doing Kinky Boots because it was sort of the most me I’ve ever been onstage. I’m not an actor, so the best that I could do in that role was just be myself, and be comfortable with that, as best I could.

This is a really roundabout answer to your question, but I think through this book and this play, it’s probably the closest to Jason Sellards anybody has actually really seen.

Rumpus: This book is so well observed, whether you’re talking about wardrobes or George Michael’s butt, or little details about school teachers. For most of the book, until you quote from your diaries, I thought you had an eidetic memory. Because who remembers flying into Islip twenty years ago?

Shears: I’ve got to say, I kept a lot of journals. I’ve never been a totally consistent journal writer, but I’m the kind of person that, even if I haven’t written for months, I’ll pick up and do an entry for a whole season. That way, I can at least go back and it gives you some answers on where you were and what was going on. I was able to piece some stuff together.

There are a few chronological puzzles in the book that I never figured out, that I kind of had to just sort of guess at.

Rumpus: Were you able to run your recollections by friends or family?

Shears: I ran into one of my old roommates at Barry’s Bootcamp in LA once. She was one of my roommates at the Cake Factory. It was so wild. I had written that whole section and then she was like, “Well, you remember this.” There was that roommate that was running around in a kimono with machete and putting pentagrams in the kitchen. I had forgotten all that stuff. And she was like, “Yeah, you remember he did like a pentagram in the kitchen with his own blood,” and I was like, “Oh my God!” And suddenly she just unlocked a whole trove of information. You’re just living your life. That was just a sidebar in my life; that was how crazy my living situation was. Once she told me those things, I remembered, “Yeah, we did put a restraining order on that guy.”

Rumpus: Particularly early on in the book, you spend a lot of time talking about your impressions of what people were wearing. How many second graders notice a polyester housecoat?

Shears: I feel like so much of what I do all goes back to those childhood fascinations. Everything, from doing this musical to writing a book to all the music that I make. It all still goes back to all those little details from childhood that I keep kind of pulling out of the closet and repurposing.

Personally, I feel like so much of what I’ve done is—I’m always going to try to write “Hard Knock Life” from Annie. It will always be there in my music, you know what I mean? I’ll always be trying to write The Muppet Movie. It’s always going to be there in my music. It’s those fascinations I had as a kid. They’ve stuck with me. I do think they have a big effect on your life, especially as a creative person.

Rumpus: I’d like to hear a bit more about that first story you wrote, about the Garfield in a haunted house?

Shears: “Garfield and the Haunted House”? The only thing I could remember about it is that I wrote it on a little lined notepad that could fit in your palm. I drew a couple of pictures in it as well.

I’ve gone back and I’ve organized all my stories that I wrote growing up and it kind of broke my heart. When I was in high school and college, I really thought I was going to be a fiction writer and that’s what I thought I was going to do. I wrote a lot. Going back and reading all these stories that I have no recollection of writing, the heartbreaking thing to me was how good some of it was.

Rumpus: Why is it heartbreaking?

Shears: It’s always been one of my dreams to write fiction. I’ve started writing fiction again. I was writing good dialogue when I was nineteen years old. Hopefully, I’ll get back there again. It was heartbreaking to see how much work I had done through my life with that and I just let that go. But I think this book, even though it’s not fiction, in a certain way it has elements of fiction to it, just with dialogue and conversations. I got to flex that muscle again.

Rumpus: So… masturbation is almost a through-line in the book. It’s pretty frequent. Most memoirs don’t actually mention this, but I’m sure it happens.

Shears: I dunno, maybe I considered it a big part of my life? I’m a very open person. I can be an oversharer. I don’t have a lot of shame, and so stuff comes out of my mouth all the time where I’m like, Oh my God, why did I just say that? It was funny, I was out in line signing Kinky Boots the other day and I told a bunch of high schoolers that when I tried Botox, I couldn’t stand it. Like, I’ll never do it again. And then I walked away being like, “Why was I just telling a bunch of kids about me using Botox?”

Rumpus: Some famous people that go in and out of the book, but it doesn’t feel like name-dropping. Elton John and Anderson Cooper are real people, not just boxes to be checked.

Shears: Well, it was just an interesting time. It just got so wild, where all these new people ended up in my life. It was just so bizarre.

I’m a big fan of the Andy Warhol era. I love creative communities. I love hosting a party. I love it when there’s people from all over the place ending up together in one room that don’t make any sense together. Why was I sitting at a dinner table with Mikhail Gorbachev? I have no idea.

Rumpus: You also have a beautifully rendered sense of place, whether it be Phoenix, or Williamsburg, or the apartment in, I think, Manhattan.

Shears: Yeah, there’s the loft in Williamsburg, that Cake Factory, and there’s that weird little apartment with no windows in Manhattan.

Rumpus: I’m thinking of the one towards the end of the book…

Shears: Oh, yeah. Oh wait, the one where I come home, and my roommate’s jerking off to the computer?

Rumpus: No, no, no. I think you’d just come home from the UK.

Shears: Yeah, it’s my little apartment in the East Village on 12th Street.

Rumpus: In a way, the locations are also characters in the book. And there’s a wonderful sense of, well, “nostalgia” might not be the right word. But your late 90s description of The Cock as a “tribute to a bygone New York.” Even twenty years ago!

Shears: When I came to New York, it was supposed to be dead. That’s why The Cock was so popular, because suddenly there was something happening. Giuliani was mayor. I moved to New York and everybody was like, Oh, nothing’s happening here. It’s over. Giuliani’s ruined the city. But then The Cock opened and suddenly the East Village was popping off with these new bars and it was really exciting.

Rumpus: Where do you go from here?

Shears: I’m going to start writing another musical. I want to write another book. My new album’s in the can and ready to go. I’m going to be kicking into album mode now. I’m going to take ten days off and then I’m just going to hit it hard. This record that I’ve made is one of the best things I’ve ever created and I’m really intensely proud of it. It’s my first solo record.

Rumpus: Is that scary?

Shears: No, I’m so happy with it. It’s like going back to what we said earlier: I really don’t care about the surface level of success. I want to make a living. I want to be able to go out and play shows. That’s my goal, to be able to go out and tour, which costs a lot of money—which you need to make a lot of money to do—to be able to go out and play with a band. So the record’s done and I fucking love it. I feel like I already did my job there.

So I’m not scared of that at all. I’d be scared if I wasn’t happy with it.

Rumpus: I can’t end this interview without asking you about your friend Mary. Her death was heartbreaking. What a lovely character.

Shears: And she was a lovely person. One of the reasons why I ended the book there, when she left, it was sort of an ending for me. She was such a big part of my life and I feel very fortunate to have had her.

But I’m glad I’ve got that song I wrote for her so long ago. I like being able to still go out on stage and I can still sing about her and I can write a book and there she is. I get to share that relationship with people and talk about it and what we meant to each to other, what she meant to me. There’s something kind of cathartic about sharing that.

It’s a wild story, the two of us. It’s a very wild, strange little tale.

Rumpus: The trajectory of your relationship is just kind of amazing.

Shears: It could be the most random moment, you become friends with someone. You just never know the impact that you can have, that a stranger that you meet on a phone line can have, on your life. You know?

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Photograph of Jake Shears © Ivan Bideac.


Elon Green is a journalist in Port Washington, New York, and an editor at Longform. He is Interviews Editor here at The Rumpus. More from this author →