Raws Schlesinger didn't plan on growing up to be a gay leather dance sensation; at least not initially. Born, raised and still doggedly holding down the alternative music scene in Nebraska, the 37-year-old came of age in the state's metal and punk underground. He booked shows and played drums in grindcore bands for years before exploring electronic music as Plack Blague — an industrial dance project that worked in tandem with evolving his sexuality as a gay man. "I'm a metalhead that likes disco," says Schlesinger. "Being able to do this project was my way of being able to reveal myself as a queer artist and start to feel normal."
Established in 2001 as a throwaway joke act — its original tagline being "anti-dance music" — you could say Plack Blague has evolved with the times. Whereas "disco sucks" was once a rallying (and truth be told, homophobic) cry of American rock fans, many of today's most popular hard-rock acts are now underpinned by currents of electronic music. And in a climate where industrial music is experiencing a resurgence unseen since Ministry and Nine Inch Nails stormed the grunge-addled Nineties — and where queer artists of all genres are encouraged to live their truths more openly — it's an ideal ecosystem for an act like Plack Blague to flourish.
A tongue-in-cheek celebration of squalor, his latest album, 2017's Night Trax, is a sprawling, viscous disco fit for dungeons. In his live shows Schlesinger performs the part in a full leather uniform, including a studded leather jock strap and gimp mask. "I like dressing up and I like the feeling of transformation," he says. "It's like the moment like I start getting out of my street clothes and start strapping on leather, just the smell, just the feeling [turns me] into a new person. You can feel getting hot and you can feel this like new rush coming out of you and just all of that's really exciting to me."
This has resulted in somewhat of a cult following for Schlesinger, whose reach has spanned well beyond Nebraska state borders — he's shared bills with such dance-punk luminaries as ADULT. And HIDE, and most recently the legendary queercore outfit, Limp Wrist. But Schlesinger was in for a surprise when High Priest of Leather, Judas Priest frontman Rob Halford himself, paid personal tribute to Schlesinger by dressing in Plack Blague gear for Halloween and posting the results on Instagram — thus began their internet friendship. "It's interesting how social media's made it so like people like him can approach people like me," Schlesinger says. "It was such a surreal moment to meet this gay icon!"
Plack Blague is part of a long legacy of queer artists on the fringe, staking a claim to heavy music with fight songs about fucking. Revolver caught up with Plack Blague's Raws — the mastermind behind the gimp mask — about his chance encounter with Rob Halford, queer visibility and his glow-up from Nebraska basement punk to dance-floor hero.
WHAT IS YOUR CORNER OF THE MUSIC SCENE LIKE IN NEBRASKA?
RAWS SCHLESINGER I'm based in Lincoln, but I go back and forth to Omaha a lot so I feel like there's a lot of connection of both cities for like a scene. And I've just been doing this for a long time around here. I played in grindcore bands for a long time and I booked touring bands constantly. So I just built this whole niche for people that wanted anything extreme and different and weird because it's Nebraska after all and people are just like dying for something like that. I feel like if I'm bringing a show here, it's kind of a quality night. It's like something interesting people are gonna see and you're probably gonna remember something out of it. I like to make it as interesting as possible.
I've kind of created a network of weirdos and queer people — and people who are interested in outsider music and lifestyles too. I'm kind of known as this weird artist — to a lot of people, I'm a must-see spectacle. [Laughs] So there's a lot of times I get people that just come to see what's going on. I've watched people change after our performances, just lose their mind. Not even gay people, but straight people will be like, "I love how much confidence you have. That's so influential for me." I find that very cool because I want people to look at me and feel that same confidence. Here I am putting forth myself, just my whole identity to you, my everything. My ass is hanging out onstage. If you can't enjoy it, then don't come, but I encourage everyone to enjoy themselves, just be confident.
DID YOU GROW UP IN NEBRASKA? WHAT WAS THAT LIKE?
I grew up in central Nebraska. My whole life I grew up thinking like Mötley Crüe was normal music. [Laughs] That's what I gravitated towards since I could remember … heavy metal. My brothers are 9–10 years older than me and they had a death-metal band. I got interested in local music, punk music, extreme music. My first punk show was in a basement, some crusty punk show when I was 15. And it was a huge eye-opening experience — I knew exactly that this was for me, you know? It was just really exciting and new and dirty, almost kind of scary, and that's just what I was dying for in my life too.
I feel like the second I started going to shows and seeing bands, that was my calling. I started just writing bands everywhere — I got to know some of the people I was writing to and so it was an interesting way to network and I just never really stopped, I guess. I was writing with Dillinger Escape Plan when they were just kind of starting, then I met them at Milwaukee Metal Fest in like 1999. One time Jamey Jasta from Hatebreed called my parent's house because I offered to set up a show there … And of course my mom answered, and so he never called me back.
HOW DID YOU FIRST START TO PARSE OUT YOUR INCLINATION TOWARDS MEN AND LEATHER? ESPECIALLY COMING FROM WITHIN A VERY HETERONORMATIVE, MASCULINE-HEAVY SCENE LIKE METAL?
I always had my issues with that. I grew up always knowing I was gay, but I never was openly out — just to my friends. I was a very different kid, definitely the kid with the dyed black hair, wearing all black clothes all the time. This was pre-internet too, so I didn't know how to meet people like me. But when I was a teenager, I saw a band from Lincoln called Fagatron. Their name ripped off a really heavy, crazy powerviolence band called Armortron, so when Fagatron started, I was like, "Oh my god, these people are just like me." I didn't know I could even meet people like me, let alone in a small town in Nebraska. So we got to make a connection.
I wasn't seeking queer music or gay music really, but it was just kind of appearing for me. And bands like the Prophet would play, and that was an openly gay band too. I've always been really influenced by counterculture style, and the counterculture of gay culture is the leather scene — or just being a metalhead or punk or whatever, that was me. I love the look of leather — it looks super rock & roll and heavy metal to me too, so I like that aspect of it. I just kind of gravitated towards that and eventually just evolved into my persona and that kind of lifestyle, too.
YOUR PRESENTATION DEFINITELY MAKES ME THINK OF ROB HALFORD. HE PUT HIMSELF OUT THERE FROM DAY ONE — TAKE "HELL BENT FOR LEATHER" — BUT PEOPLE DIDN'T PICK UP THAT HE WAS GAY, THEY JUST THOUGHT HE WAS JUST BEING REALLY TOUGH, REALLY ROCK & ROLL.
The thing is, Judas Priest was a huge part of my influence growing up — but I wasn't even seeing that yet, you know what I mean? Once I got older and started to see myself as a gay person, I was like, "Oh, it's so gay" — but also, "it's so hot." When Rob Halford did come out [in 1998], people were like, "Well, of course." But [I thought], So you can be like this in this kind of music scene, even if it is really hetero-dominant! And it is cool how sometimes you can like fool people, you know what I mean? Not to say he's "straight-acting" or anything, but I like that people had to ask, "Is he?" That's what I like about Rob Halford. I think he toyed with people's perceptions [of queerness].
CAN YOU TELL ME ABOUT MEETING ROB HALFORD FOR THE FIRST TIME?
An editor from Revolver approached me for this – he was like, "Rob Halford shouted you out" [on social media] and I was like, "Oh really?" [Laughs] My partner and I have actually had a fun time getting to know [Halford] through social media. My partner's an artist who goes by the name Butch Dick, he does this hypermasculine erotica. He supports me in Plack Blague — he's my security Leather Daddy, he is always on tour with me and helps me with merch. I do screenprinting as my day job, so together we make a lot of T-shirts. I had posted a shirt of mine online, and Rob Halford [messaged me] saying that he wanted one. I wrote back, "Anything you want!" And he sent us his address with the phrase, "Slay me!" So we sent him a huge package of art and T-shirts and stuff. We were at this art opening and all of a sudden, we started getting [photos] of Rob in our T-shirts. I [yelled], "Holy shit!" in this packed restaurant — and they were just like, "Be quiet!"
He invited us to a Judas Priest concert in Illinois — and we were just blown away. We got to hang out with him backstage at the show and just talked about being gay in music — talking about kids coming out to us at shows. He's in such a heteronormative world too — maybe his outlet is in people like us, who are just excited to be gay in metal. We didn't even really talk about metal, which is the funny thing — just a little about their new Firepower record. But I couldn't believe that this person wanted to get to know us, this queer icon.
ROB HALFORD IS STILL AN ANOMALY IN METAL — SO MANY OF OUR GAY CULTURAL TOUCHSTONES REMAIN HEAVILY INFORMED BY POP AND DANCE MUSIC. HOW ARE YOU ABLE TO STRIKE A BALANCE BETWEEN LOVING HARD MUSIC AND MAKING MUSIC FOR THE CLUB?
I was always very punk and very metal, but I love techno music and disco and even stuff like [Rupaul's] Drag Race now. But I have to really find people who understand that I like death metal too. Like a perfect example is if there's a grindcore band staying at my house — I might say, "Oh, we're having a Madonna dance party all night, so sorry." [Laughs] Some bands love it because some people just love to party, but I've had bands just stand outside waiting for it to end and I'm like, Well, this is where you are. You better just enjoy it, you know what I mean?
I've played extreme drums for like 20 years now … but sometimes I just really want to go to a dance club! When I was first starting to come out or whatever, I was kind of confused. "Will metal people accept me? Or will the punks accept me?" As open-minded as the punk world's supposed to be, sometimes it's still very homophobic in a lot of ways. So like how do I even relate because like I'm a metalhead that likes disco? I'm too gay for metal, but too metal for gay [culture]. But the more you meet people, you find there's so many more people like you.
WHO'S SOMEBODY YOU'VE BEEN ABLE TO RELATE TO IN THAT SENSE?
I think of Limp Wrist — I met Martin [Sorrondeguy] when I was like 17 in Lincoln, and Los Crudos played one of their last shows up here. And so a few years later, I wrote him a letter and basically came out to him in a way — I found out he was gay when Limp Wrist started, and I needed that so bad. I couldn't believe that there was a [band] like that out there — "I Love Hardcore Boys (I Love Boys Hardcore)" is the best of both worlds for me.
I relate to that lifestyle so much — you have to live hardcore to be in this hardcore punk world — but really, you're just kind of a queen! So you gotta put those two worlds together. That's what Limp Wrist did, and that's what I eventually did as well, 10 years after Limp Wrist. Martin eventually did write me back, and remembered me years later. It's come full circle, now — I just [played] a show with Limp Wrist in Montreal!
YOUR BAND'S TAGLINE USED TO BE "DANCE MUSIC YOU CAN'T DANCE TO." BUT YOUR LATEST ALBUM, NIGHT TRAX IS PRETTY DANCEABLE! WHAT MADE YOU DECIDE TO CHANGE COURSE?
Well, the first day I moved to Lincoln, I graduated high school early and started this band called Wasteoid. And they were just a fast grindcore party band, you know. And we really took that seriously, did a lot of touring, we did some records and really worked hard at that, but I was also the person booking all the underground shows around here forever. But I loved pop music and I love performance art. I love anything out of the ordinary so I was just booking stuff besides like punk bands and hardcore and grindcore. I was booking performance art, even pop groups and queer female hip-hop groups. It was so all over the place.
The purpose of starting Plack Blague was kind of a joke — that's why the tagline was "anti-dance music" or "dance music you can't dance to" because I made it feel like you could almost start to dance to it, but it never really goes anywhere. Noise meets non-rhythm, stuff like that. It became a way for me to play these shows with weird bands. The project was just sort of a joke for a good 10 years and then around 2012, I took it full time and turned it into what it is now … It's sleazy and dirty and fun and poppy so I'm not trying to be super scary. But I am trying to be in your face … So with Night Trax, my ideas became more structured. The whole concept came to me as "cruising music" — kind of like dark-alley cruising, not even necessarily [between] men, it can be whoever. But also having fun and knowing that like all about a good time, too.
IN "DESTROY THE IDENTITY" YOU SING MOSTLY ABOUT DISSOLVING ALL SENSE OF SELF AND SUCCUMBING INTO PURE PLEASURE. BUT THERE'S STILL A TRACE OF POLITICS IN THE LINE, "YOU FUCK THE MAN WHO FUCKS WITH YOU." CAN YOU TALK ABOUT THAT SONG?
That song's all about attitude for me. It's not necessarily a coming-out song, but about discovering yourself in a way — becoming who you are and not letting anyone fuck with you, not letting anyone ruin your day. Shedding your skin and becoming what you really want to be and understanding yourself too — but it's also just sort of this huge "fuck you" to just your basic-ass people, your super-normal people, you know like, every day person. You're always sort of, not necessarily defending yourself, but you kind of always got your eye open. And for me anyway, I do kind of know that there's always a moment where you could experience something fucked up, which I have recently and I still do. I still experience those moments, but it's about knowing who you are and doing what you want.
If you want to be hypersexual, that is your prerogative. It's like shedding your skin to develop this new platform of yourself ... to be fiercer than you ever could be and to just become the character, become the freak, become the whatever and just own it. And it also kind of talks about leather lifestyle as where being head-to-toe leather is kind of like destroying the identity and becoming this new character, this new kind of freak too, so it's a little bit about that too. [Laughs]
DO YOU CONSIDER YOUR ROLE IN PLACK BLAGUE AS A PERSONA? OR IS THIS THE REAL YOU?
Being from Nebraska I've known I've been gay my whole life, but being able to do this project was my way of starting to feel normal. And the more the band progressed, the more I felt so much more like myself and more confidence in who I am, what I believe in. This project was an interesting way for me to evolve as a person.
WHAT NOBODY TELLS YOU ABOUT BEING QUEER IS THAT IT TAKES PRACTICE TO EXTERNALIZE THE THINGS YOU'VE FELT ON THE INSIDE. THERE ARE QUITE A FEW STEPS BETWEEN ACKNOWLEDGING THAT YOU'RE QUEER AND FINDING SOMEONE TO DATE!
Yeah! Whereas my partner grew up in San Francisco, where that's all there was. When he moved here, he had never experienced like homophobia before and I was like, "Well, this is what it's like around here." [Laughs] I am this gay figure in Nebraska right now, but I had never really considered myself a fag, especially when this project was starting.
I didn't have a platform to speak about this kind of stuff. I'd just been playing in bands for so long and this was my outlet to just be gay. I've been around so much heteronormative stuff, especially in extreme music, that it was my way of bringing in this like weird gay underground into a space that's never had it before. Now kids come up to me and my partner at shows — they'll come out to us or say, "I never knew this existed here." Kids who are still 25 and say, "I don't know who else to talk to," and, "I've never told anybody this!" I want those kids to come back to me in 15 years and blow me away.
WHAT'S NEXT FOR PLACK BLAGUE?
I actually just did a stint of recordings with ADULT. in Detroit. That's my next-level step ... I want to work on a new sound and ADULT. is one of those bands that's taken me under their wing and been very accepting and influential. I booked them in Nebraska in 2009 — I threw a party where we raged, partied all night, the cops came. Just one of those nights – we still talk about it. [Laughs] I'm also releasing a whole remix album of Night Trax through this label called Stage Tapes out of Minneapolis. I have 13 tracks of artists from all over the world who did remixes strictly from Night Trax. It's all over the place in sound — it's heavy industrial, it's techno, it's noise. It's the next level of Night Trax. It will be out later this summer.