Myles Cooper and Alexis Penney are making San Francisco ground zero for gay pop creativity
MUSIC The Aunt Charlie's in the video  for Myles  Cooper 's song "Gonna Find Boyfriends Today" is a massive tree with a vagina dentata doorway where cupcakes, eggs, top-hatted Mr. Peanuts and white-gloved strawberries dance, while Muppets sing a chorus. Nestled in the tenderest spot of the city's loins, just off Market Street, the Aunt Charlie's of San Francisco is a different place, but not really. One night a week, it's the site of High Fantasy, a club hosted by Cooper and Alexis Penney that — as Cooper says — "belongs to the fantasies of those who come and need to imagine and party."
Aunt Charlie's is also one nexus of a mini-movement of sorts of truly new gay pop music in 2010. Witty, both ironic and utterly sincere, and catchier than any mega-production you might hear on the radio, Cooper's bedroom reggaeton — or, to use his phrase, digital dancehall — debut single is one of its anthems. "I made a YouTube video to remember the song when I wrote it," he explains, when asked about "Gonna Find Boyfriends Today"'s genesis. "I still have it. I was on Ambien late at night. The writing took like 30 seconds, but coming up with the chord changes and sound was more cognitive. I was listening to 'Supermodel,' the Rupaul song, and the first line is ripped off from it."
Decked out in gonzo cartoon cover art  by Skye Thorstenson , who made the song's video, "Gonna Find Boyfriends Today" has just been released as a 7-inch single by Transparent in England, where the fabled weekly New Musical Express recently placed Cooper ninth on a list of "The 50 Most Fearless People in Music ," one spot below Lady Gaga. Tonight, the fearless man with the brush cut and Mr. Rogers attire is camped out a table at Aunt Charlie's, where DJ Bus Station John is prepping for his weekly night, Tubesteak Connection. "Bus Station, where is my boyfriend tonight?," a regular calls out from the bar. "Oh, she's around," John answers.
Cooper is about to go on a summer trip to Chicago, then Africa, then Chicago again. Two nights before, at High Fantasy, a chorus of four performers serenaded him with Toto's "Africa." "I felt like somebody cared," he says, with characteristic low-key geniality. Many people travel to Africa, but not many make music videos with close relatives during the trip — that's Cooper's goal. "I'm writing a song, an anthem called 'You've Got to Love Your Family'," he says. "I don't always get along with my family, and I feel like this is a test. It'll be funny to do the video with them lip-syncing the song. We'll be on safari, and it'll capture my family's funny interaction with me. My mom never wants to be on camera."
It's this kind of true directness and simple originality that likely inspired NME to deem Cooper one of the 10 most fearless musicians on the globe. His surface appearance of intense normalcy is paired with wild creativity. "I got these shoes because they kind of remind me of a Noe Valley 50-year-old in a way that's sexy to me," he says, pointing down to his feet. "My fashion choices are perverse and I like to be in costume." At High Fantasy, that costume might include a glitter-encrusted Bart Simpson T-shirt with Tupac tattooed on Bart's stomach. At a Lilith Fair-inspired drag night he once put on at The Stud, his look included "a flannel skirt and a dolphin airbrushed on my ankle and and really ugly Doc Marten sandals and a tie-dyed shirt and gross curly wig."
Cooper's look and outlook has some connections to a recent day gig working with boys and girls aged 5 and 6. There might be moments where he wishes some kids' face were an iPad so he can create or communicate on the job, but there's an honest and committed through-line between his daytime life and nightlife. A recent show by his group Myles Cooper USA included giant acid house yellow smiley faces that were painted by the kids. He says he recently gave them a fashion poll: which label is better, Ed Hardy or Baby Phat? Baby Phat won by one vote, cast by him ("I like the cat on the logo").
Cooper used to play in the Passionistas, a three-piece that put out one excellent pop-punk album in 2007 before disbanding. Going solo allows him to edit himself while giving his imagination free rein. That means he can incorporate his visits to Chicago (and greater journey to and from the Windy City and Africa) into the music he's making today; the city is where he filmed the video for his next single, "Hair," a many-voiced delight that places him alongside Morrissey and Jens Lekman in the hairdo-song hall of fame. "House music has always been a mysterious thing to me, because I've always thought of it as this perfected music that wasn't made by people," he says, when asked about the sound of Chicago. "I don't think that anymore, I see how human it is. Even if the people I see are just playing records, I want to see what tempo they are, what key they're in, what people are doing as they hear the music, and what they're looking like when they do it."
"I had a crush on Myles for a while, I thought he was so hot and the perfect boyfriend for me," Alexis Penney  says at Aunt Charlie's. It's a few weeks later, and Penney is prepping the bar for another night of High Fantasy. We've met at the apartment she shares with Dade Elderon of Party Effects , where she puts Band-Aids in a pair of high-heeled shoes before we head out, a little move that seems especially necessary less than half an hour later, when she's scaling — quickly and faultlessly — a wooden ladder-like staircase to find and gather decorations. "The trick to having a club is that you have to go out a lot, so people know you," Penney declares, gathering and arranging a train of white tulle that's just long enough for the Bride of Godzilla.
Thing is, Penney — who grew High Fantasy out of Thing, a night she put on with Seth Bogart of Hunx and His Punx — shouldn't necessarily need to go out to be known. Her first recording, "Lonely Sea,"  produced by Nick Weiss of Teengirl  Fantasy , could be the number one hit of 2010 for anyone who ever had a heart. Like Cooper's "Gonna Find Boyfriends Today," it takes touchstones of gay pop past — in this case, the churchy keyboard sounds and insistent crossover house beat of songs like "Supermodel" and Crystal Waters' "Gypsy Woman" -- and adds some plaintive MIDI saxophone sounds at just the right moment, while wedding it to a beautifully frank and completely modern vocal about a broken relationship.
Penney is a busy girl. She edits, writes and photographs for SORE , an online magazine that captures San Francisco gay nightlife. SORE was born in Kansas City, where Penney is from, when she and a friend named Roy and Cody Critcheloe from the group SSION  decided they wanted "a sort of punk answer" to the popular lifestyle magazine BUTT. "I photograph things because I think they look funny, I don't do it because it's nightlife photography," Penney says, bunching a ball of electric blue tulle into a ball against the back wall of the bar. "My ultimate fantasy for SORE, which will never happen, would be for it to be a print magazine. None of this 'We talk about sex, but we make $100,000 a year' material. Real gay life."
Penney's gay life, buoyed by friends like Monistat, is realer than most. "I wander around in my T-shirt and jeans a lot in the daytime, that's normal," she says. "But I needed to challenge myself with fashion. And [cross-dressing] went in line with the fact that I was dating someone [Bogart] who owned a vintage store. We were constantly thrifting and I had so much clothing at my disposal. I decided I'd just wear a bra, because you just don't see a guy wearing a bra. Or I'd wear a bra and a lift, or a really slutty cocktail dress. I dress in women's clothes interchangeably. I don't trip about it. As much as people in SF say they're trans-friendly, people really trip about gender. A lot of drag queens, they're in or they're out. I don't even care."
True. Except in Penney's case, not caring is actually caring more than most people have the guts to in a society where every micro-subculture seems to breed conformity. It's this directness, different from Cooper's, or Bogart's flirty and radically seductive candor, that distinguishes the music that Penney has made so far with Weiss. "I instantly felt a musical connection with Alexis, and the shine of her confident aura," Weiss writes, when asked about first meeting Penney and the making of "Lonely Sea." "My celebratory buoyant house beat mixed with Alexis' love-lost lyrics so instantly I knew we had a hit."
Both Penney and Bogart (as H.U.N.X. ) have been recording with Weiss, and the results are everything from moving ("Lonely Sea") and slinky and ebulliently powerful (Penney's "Like the Devil" , the sun to "Lonely Sea"'s elemental moon, and every bit its equal) to sexy in an existentially lonely way (H.U.N.X.'s "Can A Man Hear Me")  and hilarious (H.U.N.X.'s vampire cruising track "I Vant to Suck Your Cock" ). For the prodigious Weiss, the connection to Penney might go back to a shared childhood love of Annie Lennox, particularly her 1992 album Diva. "Seth and Alexis are both really hyper-specific about what they're going for," he says, breaking down the collaborations. "Seth likes to work really fast and doesn't usually go over two takes on a song. Alexis likes to throw out tons of reference points while we're writing: 'Give me something a little more trip hop-acid-tropical-wave-current please! And could you make it a little more world?'"
"Myles [Cooper] and I nerd out over music and songwriting over text message. He's totally a visionary," Weiss goes on to enthuse. In the separate but connected sounds of Cooper, Penney, H.U.N.X. and Teengirl Fantasy, all the wonderful gender-blur and sexuality of 1992 -- when Lennox went solo and Boy George burst back into the limelight via The Crying Game — are remade anew, at a time when lifestyles feels like strait-jackets. There is inspiration to be taken from these artists' love and support for one another on a daily and a big-picture basis. It's the kind of force that can make changes within a broader culture, at least on small, rippling levels. This is gay pop in 2010: not striking mannered classic gay or rock poses, but instead allowing fabulous and tricky versions of one's self to manifest and bloom.
"I could talk for days about nothing," Penney says at one point, just before another night of High Fantasy begins. But really, she has something to say: "My relationship with music is that if I can't connect emotionally with it, I just don't like it." And another thing: "I get really messy and really wasted but I always know where I'm at and who I am." And another: "I always respect the person who you remember from the party. I want to be irreverent and confident enough to look like a freak." And another: "Everyone wants to be something, but not everyone admits it to themselves." And yet another: "I'm 23, I've tried every drug, I've never said no to sex, and here I am — I'm totally crazy."
And — what the hell — one more thing: "I've got a lot to give. I've got a big heart, and a big boner."