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Making the Band

Joseph Janus, Calvin Klein’s previous director of marketing, has a knack for using music as a platform to kickstart new trends. When the New York gay entrepreneur assembled guy duo The Deuce Project, it must have been his belief that selling music is not that different from selling underwear.

The Deuce Project is Texas-born Josh McMillan, 22, and Noah Pearce, 23, whose debut album "Stone Cold" features a combination of soulful acoustics from the South and edgy pop from the North.

The group’s unpolished rocky quality is tamed by the slick production of the Berman Brothers. Real-life brothers Christian and Frank Berman are well-known for their hard-hitting gay club anthems and their production of club acts such as Amber (“This Is Your Night”) and Stars on 54 (“If You Could Read Your Mind”).

The band is making every effort to win over new fans to grow their momentum. Even though teenage girls and college kids might appear their likely target demographic, the duo caters their breezy sound to gays as well. Not in the least for their Abercrombie good looks, infectious melodies and McMillan’s well-mannered rock crooning.

In an exclusive phone interview with Arjan, Joseph Janus, who is now the group’s manager and executive producer, claims that The Deuce Project is as much a gay band as many other groups.

He explains, “I don’t think there are many musicians out there that make records specifically for gay or straight people. That would be ridiculous. [Artists] want to make records that everybody likes. The Deuce Project is no different and the great thing is that they make good music that people can relate to.”

McMillan and his buddy Pearce grew up in San Antonio, Texas, where the two started to play music in church. In their late teens, their paths went separate ways. The introverted Pearce stayed in Texas to go to college. McMillan diligently pursued music and spent a brief time in Boston to study musical theatre. After that he went to New York to record demos and hunt for a record deal.

One of his tapes was passed on from friend to friend and eventually ended up in the hands of Janus. He and the Berman Brothers liked the sound of McMillan and wondered if they could put a band together with him as the lead. McMillan readily agreed and convinced Pearce to come on board as a guitarist.

The two signed a lofty record deal with Madonna’s Maverick Records and started to work on their debut project. Only months later, the group’s “Stone Cold” hit stores with a great deal of anticipation.

The album’s title song needs to be applauded for its upbeat guitar arrangement and McMillan’s remarkable vocals. The Deuce Project’s is reminiscent of many typical radio rock-pop confections but has its own distinct vibe that includes the Berman’s layered pop production including strings and other rock orchestration.

McMillan is happy with “Stone Cold” as the first single off the album. He tells Arjan, “I think that song really shows how my acoustic sound and the Berman’s edgy pop skills merged when we worked together on this album.”

The song “Without You Both” is dearest to the singer. He explains, “I wrote that song when I was a senior in high school and I always kept it in my back pocket to use at a later point in time. It has a really cool guitar and harmonica vibe to it that we left intact during the production.”

“Lose My Way” is an earnest guitar ballad that young gays might relate to with its pointy coming of age lyrics. McMillan says, “That song is about me getting to terms with changes in my life, leaving high school, going to college and leaving home. That emotion really grabbed me at that time.”

McMillan hints at the pressure that he is feeling from signing with a big record label. He says, “Maverick is investing millions in us. We really want to make sure we do the best we can to make this happen. This is not some sort of Indy thing going on.”

October 15, 2003 in Music Reviews | Permalink | Comments (2)

Paul van Dyk Dreams of Pop

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Trance music has evolved ever since it hit the mainstream pop charts. This crossover has resulted in an entire new breed of superstar DJs and techno fans. A group of European spinmasters has moved the genre to a different level with a pop-sensitive approach that combines high-tech synths with heartfelt melodies. Leader of the pack is East German-born Paul van Dyk who has has captured audiences with his relentlessly secutive, hypnotising beats since 1991.

In conjuntion with the release of his new album "Reflections," Van Dyk performed at Atlanta's Eleven50 on October 9th before a large group of glowstick-swirling fans.

Paul van Dyk has been critized for selling out his true techno soul for a dreamy pop vibe that will do better in the hit charts. His latest album does indeed appeal to a mainstream crowd with tracks such as the glorious single "Time of Our Lives" (featuring pop rock band Vega 4), "Nothing But You," and "Homage."

However, Van Dyk's live performance demonstrates that he is still in full control of his nifty Apple Powerbook. He easily pulls up his hits in MP3 format, but also freely mixes his fierce beats and celestial crescendos, creating a mind-expanding tour de force that proved to appeal to both his hardcore base and newer pop fans.

October 10, 2003 in Concert Review | Permalink | Comments (2)

Megan Mullally Strikes Gold with "Will & Grace"

With her Emmy award-winning role as the elegantly wasted Karen Walker on "Will & Grace," the popular television sitcom launched Megan Mullally’s career as a queer icon with a fanatic gay following around the world.

The Oklahoma native was preparing recently for the sixth season of one of NBC’s most popular Thursday night programs when she spoke with Arjan on the show’s set in Studio City, Calif., about its groundbreaking storylines, gay humor, her bisexuality and queer television.

"The fact that [Will & Grace] did not create controversy is partly because 'Ellen' had broken some ground already," Mullally says. "Another reason is that gay-bashing is built into the show. So if you’re some truck driver in North Dakota, you get to laugh at the expense of these guys right along with the guys themselves."

More than 100 episodes after "Will & Grace" first aired, the comedy series has paved the way for more openly gay characters on the small screen. Despite the show’s focus on gay topics, it enjoys a huge mainstream audience and was never the focus of political fury or subject to NBC censors.

When actor Ellen DeGeneres’ character Ellen Morgan came out as a lesbian in 1997 on "Ellen," it resulted in a media firestorm and speculation that the show was canceled because of its gay-related storylines. But the sitcom already had begun to lose viewers even before the character and the actor came out.

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The episode on which the lesbian character acknowledged she was gay prompted more viewers to tune in, though not all of them continued to watch the sitcom. Eventually, "Ellen" was canceled, but the extent to which the gay storyline affected this is debatable.

Mullally believes what happened was rooted in the awkward way the character on "Ellen" came out of the closet.

"After the episode in which she came out, it was such a big deal that the show could not have a follow-up episode that was like ‘that crazy thing that happened when everybody went bowling,' " she says. "The show had to keep dealing with it, and that’s when the issue became politicized and everybody jumped on it.

"In 'Will & Grace,' Jack and Will happen to be gay, and viewers have known this from the start," Mullally says. "There was nothing to argue about."

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Appearing on "Will & Grace" was Mullally’s big break in Tinsel Town. Before her ongoing stint on network television, she was an accomplished theater actress in musicals and plays in Chicago and New York City. But Mullally never expected to be a comedic actress.

"What I think I do is that I play a comedy as if it’s a drama. I play it high-stakes, and that makes it funnier," she says. "If you really invest in the character’s little details, then it makes that character much funnier."

Mullally says "Will & Grace" is often very farcical, like a musical comedy.

"It is paced really fast. There have been a lot of things that I discovered that I really like about playing that kind of comedy," she says. "A lot of the physical comedy is also really fun to do, but I also find it really fun to watch."

Mullally credits much of Karen’s distinct qualities to the show’s writers, even though she was able to add some of her own ideas to the character.

"I came up with Karen’s high-pitched voice, the body language and the 'honeys,'" she says. "But beyond that, the writers write all of our dialogue. I think it was early on when we pitched a couple of ideas to the writers. But overall the writing is so good that we don’t have to step in."

All the show’s lead actors: Erick McCormack (Will), Debra Messing (Grace), Sean Hayes (Jack) and Mullally have been recognized for their outstanding acting performances. Messing won an Emmy on Sept. 21, for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation has honored "Will & Grace" with three awards.

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Over the years, many gay fans, among others, have questioned why the show is not called "Jack & Karen" to reflect the hilarity between the two satellite characters.

"Clearly, the center of the show remains the relationship between the gay guy and the straight girl," Mullally says. "I agree that Jack and Karen are the characters that people initially responded too. Now, Will and Grace’s characters are so much funnier and multi-faceted that in a way the gap has been narrowed."

Mullally is excited about having so many gay fans and has her own explanation for her popularity, which includes Karen’s distinct queer humor on the show.

"There are a lot of different sets of jokes you can do when its comes to queer humor. It has to do with being able to do more outrageous things," she says. "That is why I think Karen is so popular in the gay community — because she is so outrageous and outspoken. If you’re gay, you are in a repressed minority and you want to be able to speak up, and so you identify with strong personalities such as Karen."

Mullally, who married her longtime boyfriend, actor Nick Offerman, on the night before the Emmy Awards ceremony Sunday, never made a secret of her bisexuality.

"It is no big deal to me. I have always been attracted to women and I went on dates with women if they asked me and I thought they were interesting," she says. "It did not seem that different to me. I had made a pledge that if I ever would be in a relationship with a woman I would be really open about it.

"But then I met [Offerman] and now he is the apple of my eye," she says. "The lesson is not whether somebody is straight, gay or bisexual, the lesson is how you think about it. I feel that really everybody is innately bisexual but we’re acculturated differently."

Mullally, 44, and Offerman, 33, met three years ago while co-starring in a play in Los Angeles, Entertainment Weekly reported, and got engaged last year. She previously was married to talent agent Michael Katcher. This is Offerman’s first marriage.

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The actress describes herself as an avid fan of queer television and says she tapes all the episodes of "Queer Eye For The Straight Guy" and "Boy Meets Boy" on her Tivo.

Mullally believes that both shows are helping gays gain more acceptance because of the programs’ real-life depiction of some aspects of gay life.

She describes "Queer Eye" as "very touching and poignant because the straight guys are really open to it and, in the end, so happy, grateful and confident. It is a very interesting cultural study."

"Boy Meets Boy" is similar in that way, Mullally says. "Afterwards, all the straight guys admitted how similar gays are to them and that it is really about relationships with the same kind of emotional patterns," she says. "It is another step in the right direction without being political, but in the form of entertainment."

Mullally recently got the chance to meet some of her idols.

"We met the guys from 'Queer Eye' here yesterday, because they will make a guest appearance on another show, and they are really nice," she says. "They are really tiny people — tiny little-bitty people. It is so fascinating. Their jeans must be like a size 26. I am not kidding."

In Karen-like fashion, she says, "Some people say that Jack is too gay and that nobody is that flamboyant, but the blond guy [Carson Kressley] from the show even beats Jack. He is so funny."

Mullally realizes, though, that her adoration for the Fab Five has its limits.

"I’ve had a lot of gay men fall in love with me and vice versa," she says, "but you know, it can only go so far."

October 6, 2003 in TV Reviews | Permalink | Comments (93)

Arjan Meets Megan Mullally

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Yes, that's me and Megan Mullally (sporty look). This photo is taken in the production offices of "Will & Grace" right after I interviewed Megan on the set of the show. More photos of my trip to the studios in Studio City, Calif. can be viewed in this photo album. Please note some of the show's industry awards on the wall in the background of the picture.

October 6, 2003 in Interviews | Permalink | Comments (24)

Two Queens Reign Supreme

Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige have made millions singing about love gone wrong. Not so, however, on their new CDs. Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, and Mary J. Blige, the Queen of Hip-Hop Soul, have both released new CDs celebrating the joys of love and life. Franklin packs her positive outlook on the album "So Damn Happy," while Blige rediscovers her roots on "Love & Life," her sixth studio record.

On Franklin’s CD, the two entertainers actually merge their royal voices, with Blige singing on “No Matter What” and “Holdin’ Out.” The younger performer provides a modern-day R&B vibe that underlines Franklin’s unlimited versatility.

Over the course of three decades, Franklin has become an international treasure, by selling millions of records and leaving a mark in a range of genres, from blues and jazz to gospel and soul. At 61, this daughter of a Baptist preacher is still performing worldwide and sharing her message with hordes of adoring fans.

On “So Damn Happy,” she demonstrates that she is still in touch with contemporary tastes. In addition to Blige, she also gets help on the album from hit producers such as Troy Taylor, whose credits include work with Whitney Houston, and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, who have helped shaped the music of Janet and Michael Jackson, Elton John, Patti Labelle, Luther Vandross, and numerous others.

Franklin’s album is filled with songs about hope (“Holdin’ On”), empowerment (“Good News”), happiness (“Wonderful,” and “So Damn Happy”) and the ups and downs of love (“The Only Thing Missin’”).

But the album’s unconditional feel-good vibe is lacking any exciting hooks or compelling meaning. Mediocre songs about chirping birds, holding hands and joining hearts do not provide the substance that fits her reputation.

When Mary J Blige sang “No More Drama” in 2001, we knew she really meant it. The album was the end of a spiritual journey that revealed grief, depression and raw personal pain. Mary’s teary-voiced songs served as a musical catharsis, and on the latest CD reflect her growth as a person and as an artist.

“I was tired of suffering, of the hustle and hassle of everyday life,” she said in a recent statement released in conjunction with the new CD. “Right now, I am growing, I’m learning. I realized that I need to hear the truth and that the truth is setting me free. And what you hear on ‘Love & Live’ is the truth and my willingness to embrace it.”

“No More Drama” reached beyond Blige’s core urban fans to suburban and even international audiences. This proved her forthright emotions were universal, and allowed her to connect with millions, much to her own surprise.

Blige also has gained significant popularity in the gay community with sweeping club mixes of her music and her support for AIDS charities.

Hip-hop mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs produced the bulk of her new album. The two previously collaborated in 1992 on her groundbreaking debut album, “What’s The 411” and the 1994 follow-up, “My Life.”

This initial pairing of Blige and Combs introduced the so-called “ghetto fabulous” soul music that fused old-school blues with contemporary rap, hip-hop and funk. But nine years later, this formula appears to have lost its edge.

Combs’ lack of innovative production skills marginalizes the singer’s distinct talent on the new CD. His unoriginal hip-hop beats, overly dramatic interludes and plain rap duets compromise Blige’s intense vocals.

Nonetheless, Blige pulls off a few noteworthy moments on this 18-track album, including the infectious “Let Me Be The 1” (featuring rapper 50 Cent) and the punctuating “Not Today” (produced by Dr. Dre).

“Friends,” a soaring ballad, is a classic Mary J. Blige song on which she pours out emotions that describe her pain and anger about people who betrayed her.

It’s Mary at her best, showing anybody willing to listen her greatest asset — a powerful, and now mature, voice.

October 6, 2003 in Music Reviews | Permalink | Comments (4)