Pixel Grip: Jonathon Freund, Rita Lukea, and Tyler Ommen

In the world of Chicago goth dance trio Pixel Grip, “the arena” is more than a literal venue where spectators gather to delight in competition—it refers to any context our society envisions as a zero-sum game, where no one can win without someone else losing. The band’s sophomore album, Arena, proposes the club as a sanctuary.

Over ten darkly electrifying tracks (“Alphapussy,” “Dancing on Your Grave”), singer Rita Lukea describes what they call their “villain origin story”—that is, why they’ve come to play a commanding hard femme in a queer electro band. Arena speaks powerfully to the frustration and anger of people who are unwillingly sexualized, overworked, underpaid, and generally exploited. These themes are also personal to Lukea’s bandmates, Jonathon Freund and Tyler Ommen—in fact they’re common sentiments among young queer creatives who value autonomy as much as safety. That’s most evident in Pixel Grip’s video for “Demon Chaser.”

The video opens with Lukea dressed like a disco Karen O, striding up to the doorway of a club, flanked by a masked Freund and Ommen—but they can’t get in. Two imposing, leather-clad bodies stiff-arm Lukea to protect what looks like a cross between a fun-house entrance and a hellmouth. The pair wear matching programmable LED masks whose flat surfaces display uncanny, glamorous doll faces—as though they’re trying to seem lovely while doing the ugly job of rejecting people. It’s funny that they’re policing the door so intently, since no one is waiting to get in—the space outside is empty, save for this new-wave dominatrix and their space-cowboy bandmates.

Then a glamorous woman saunters past. Played by Black trans nightlife fixture Cae Monāe, she’s a picture of confidence, a silhouette draped in black taffeta that moves like breath expanding and collapsing. You can’t see her face, but Pixel Grip’s heads all turn. Before she approaches, the uncanny bouncers have already pulled back the velvet rope, allowing her to descend into the belly of the beast. Witnessing this is a revelation for the trio. They scamper after her, eager to see where she—and this feeling she’s given them—will go.

  • The “Demon Chaser” video, directed by Todd Diederich

Chasing the forbidden is the premise of “Demon Chaser.” Directed by Todd Diederich and filmed at the Co-Prosperity Sphere in Bridgeport, the video was released two weeks ago as the third single from Arena, which is due May 21 on Chicago indie FeelTrip Records. Freund, 29, and Ommen, 28, create haunting, danceable beats with synths and drum machines; Lukea, 26, delivers authoritative but ethereal vocals about how being seen as a villain makes them feel sexy and cool. (See also: Ursula, Maleficent, Jareth the Goblin King.) Beginning in their early teens, when they began making music, Lukea experienced objectification and sexual violence from older men in the scene, who took advantage of their eagerness to learn and participate. As a result, much of the album focuses on reclaiming power and agency. But “Demon Chaser” places that reclamation in a richer, queerer context.

Lukea uses their breath to create a rhythm—the breathlessness of chasing someone or fucking them. Monāe plays the demon being pursued. One possible surface read of the video positions Pixel Grip as “chasers”—that is, cis people who lust after trans people as fetish objects, even using them as props for clout—but its dreamlike logic makes clear that a different dynamic is in play. What gets Monāe into the club is her sense of queer agency—and because it’s also what inspires Pixel Grip to follow her, its power rubs off on them. At the end, Monāe drones “You gotta go” like a command to get away, then “You gotta” like an encouragement—insistent, then playful. Welcome to the party.

“A lot of my music centers the reclaiming of power within the trans femme/cis male interaction,” Monāe writes in an e-mail. “For most trans people, discussing trans fetishism as a part of your sexual experience is inevitable. Ironically, Pixel Grip and I never discussed it specifically, but I don’t think we had to.”

So much about the video will feel familiar to artsy weirdos of a certain inclination. It’s naughty and absurdist in a way that echoes Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone, the 1980 cult film whose dark Dada energy Elfman’s brother, Danny, later refined in the band Oingo Boingo (Danny also plays Satan in the movie). Parts of its aesthetic borrow from Weimar cabaret, whose visual vernacular has long been favored by queer artists because of its connection to a history of performers forced to entertain the same Nazis who condemned queers and many people they loved as “degenerate.” The video fuses this with trappings of acid house and 90s raves, which are rooted in a culture created by queer people, people of color, and women: black-light paint, furry textures, oversize objects, smiley faces.

Weimar cabaret was about using minimal resources to maximum effect, in large part because the interwar years in Germany were marred by profound deprivation, which the Nazis exploited in their rise to power. Cabaret became a way for fantasy to overpower reality: it prized glamour and androgyny, but it had to code them in ways not legible to authorities. Pairing this with 90s rave culture suggests a desire to escape through ego-destroying collective euphoria: Being in communion with others. Getting lost in a rhythm. One among many adding to the vibe. The visuals nod to state repression as well as to the pursuit of happiness (or at least distraction) by sharing something, even if it’s just dancing.

All in all, “Demon Chaser” seems like an appropriate response to the present moment. We’ve been locked inside for a year, losing jobs, housing, friends, and family to the mismanagement of a pandemic that has disproportionately ravaged people of color and low-wage earners. For all practical purposes, you have to work a full-time job (or marry someone who does) to afford health insurance. Last summer people marched and rioted to protest state violence, especially against Black people, and then our presidential election replaced a wannabe dictator with someone who merely uses better etiquette to defend white supremacy. With so much to be angry about, dancing can be an act of rebellion when it’s in the right space with the right company.

  • Arena drops May 21 via FeelTrip Records.

Pixel Grip began writing the material on Arena in 2019 and entered the recording studio in spring 2020. The band had already chosen sides before the pandemic, but its inequities only hardened Lukea’s opinion of landlords and the rich. “People who hoard wealth, they sicken me,” they say. “I got pissed off when the rich got richer during this pandemic, and I got pissed off seeing celebrities in their pool being like, ‘You guys, we’re gonna get through it. We just need to do this together!’ It’s like, no, you’re in your pool drinking a margarita that somebody made for you, and we are in our stinky studio apartments. We’re alone, and we’re poor, and we’re going to stay poor during this entire thing. You’re not.”

Because Arena is largely a product of pre-COVID days, it feels like a fantasy of club life we’re clamoring to get back to. “We wrote the songs envisioning a sea of people and what we wanted them to do on the downbeat,” Lukea says. “It’s about pure energy. What’s going to make them push each other and sweat and twerk?” Pixel Grip’s music celebrates the idea of the club as a queer space where all it takes is the right outfit, song, or pill to transport you to a different life—a key reason Lukea, Ommen, and Freund began playing together as teenagers in Crystal Lake, then formed the band in 2017.

“Rita’s our art director,” Freund says, acknowledging the role Lukea plays in crafting Pixel Grip’s image. He and Ommen take the lead in world-building through sound.

Freund learned the power of dance music around the time he met his future bandmates. “I was 16 and washing dishes at my first job at Panera,” he says. “My friend played me Aphex Twin. I heard a different world that was so beautiful and dreamy and new and refreshing and intriguing. After that, I knew I had to save up all my measly little paychecks from food-service grunt work to buy drum machines and synthesizers. I had to know what was happening in the song to make it so enjoyable and fun to listen to.”

The members of Pixel Grip began playing together as teenagers in Crystal Lake and formed the band in 2017.Credit: Alexus McLane

“Demon Chaser” is a song for all sorts of marginalized people, and it reminds us of our obligation to treasure and protect those more vulnerable than we are. It flips the toxic dynamic of the “chaser” 180 degrees.

Queer gatekeeping is a real thing, and if you’re part of any queer communities online, you might even feel like you’ve done it—especially if you haven’t adopted an attitude of “the more, the merrier” toward the deluge of inspirational images and infographics about how valid you are.

The “Demon Chaser” video might look at first like it’s dramatizing queer gatekeeping. What it’s actually doing, though, is pointing out that by allying with the most marginalized members of the community, queer people can transcend internecine arguments and recognize the real enemy—the white capitalist heteropatriarchy that forces us to constantly negotiate between our private truths and our public selves and denies us material and emotional support.

Federally legalized gay marriage is only six years young, but it’s long been a symbol of queer assimilation—a capitulation to familiar ideas of family and to a state that decides who’s worthy of health care, citizenship, and last rites. Anyone under 30 grew up in a media climate that said, “Look at these gays! They’re just like us!” This might’ve been a well-intentioned attempt to fight stigma, but it encouraged a relationship to queerness that elided the painful parts.

Monāe represents the possibility of resistance to assimilation. Like many queers today, Pixel Grip among them, she insists, “Actually, we are not like you. And further? We do not want to be.”

To be queer is to nakedly face the ways you and your loved ones do not (or cannot) organize your life around the cis straight white nuclear family—and imagining other possibilities because of it. It’s one of the reasons queerness is threaded through subcultures such as goth and techno, which have long thrived in the kind of underground spaces being lost to gentrification and to the assimilation of upwardly mobile gays. And it’s why Monāe—a visible and vocal reminder of the way some bodies are granted more humanity and safety than others—makes the perfect demon for “Demon Chaser.”

She represents so many anxieties of the Meghan McCains of the world, such as the ones fueling the recent wave of anti-trans legislation focusing on sports. As Derrick Clifton points out in a March story for Them., these laws were proposed less because trans women were trying to play and more because Black cis women were already winning—and thus had to be redefined as not womanly enough to win legitimately. By policing how bodies should look and perform, the proposed legislation protects the sanctity of white cis womanhood—something Monāe disrupts with her mere existence. Being coded as taboo makes her tantalizing and exotic, even as it reproduces her dehumanization. But she has a way of dealing with that. “Poisonous persuasion / Black power,” she sings. “Charge him by the hour.”

Performer, musician, and makeup and visual artist Cae Monāe collaborated with Pixel Grip on “Demon Chaser.”Credit: Cae Monāe

In the context of the song, “him” is as much a specific client as a symbol of authority. The rules of the free market say price is proportional to demand. Well, your time is in high demand (from you). The man wants some too? Cost just went up. “Charge him by the hour” means placing a higher premium on our chosen communities and investing time in them—and extracting the resources to do so from our employers.

Lukea and Monāe both embody a “bitch better have my money” vibe. But that archetype often doesn’t threaten hierarchy as much as reimagine it—and that can lead to neoliberal nonsense such as the “girlboss.” But the club is a safe place in part because it requires knowing where artifice ends and reality begins. Actually living out the plot of 9 to 5 would be more terrifying than thrilling—but watching Dolly Parton, Jane Fonda, and Lily Tomlin dom Dabney Coleman is fun because we viscerally understand all the psychosexual reasons to chain up your boss in a garage. We need a space and a soundtrack where it’s safe to imagine this sort of thing—not because we’re going to do it, but because the imagining itself is cathartic.

“The venue or club or disco is the only real respite from the arena,” says Lukea. “And if you have venues that aren’t offering you that feeling of, ‘OK, this is the one place where I’m safe,’ it actually continues to oppress you. That doesn’t work for me. It needs to be a utopia. And it can’t be a fucking boys’ club. A boys’ club is an arena.”

One of the ways Pixel Grip work toward creating a utopia for audiences (and for themselves) is by screening venues. What do they look for? “It seems small,” Lukea says. “But bathroom neutrality.” The band also seek out show spaces that are not only run by queer people and women but also have a track record of putting them onstage. Any little thing that indicates their fans are welcome goes a long way.

“Tides are changing, and people are starting to give a shit,” Lukea says. “But ultimately, I really feel like it’s a systemic thing that’s happening. We’re not playing for all straight white male audiences. We’ve facilitated a really diverse crowd where people feel safe and a lot of people show up.”

Pixel Grip also try to perform or collaborate with boundary-pushing artists such as Monāe. “Demon Chaser” isn’t their first time working with her—in 2019, she opened Pixel Grip’s release party for their first album, Heavy Handed. As the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all boats.

“Cae is a fucking assassin,” says Lukea. “She’s like a mistress of mania. That’s what she calls herself. She’s like a quadruple threat with makeup and visual art and performance and music. She does all the production herself. She has a song called ‘Cisphobic.’ That’s such a strong, visceral statement. It has this vibe of commentary and anger that I resonate with.”

  • Cae Monāe released “Cisphobic” three years ago.

“We reached out to her to open for our album-release show,” Lukea says, laughing, “and she was like, ‘Yeah, gorge'”—it was such a gorgeous idea, the entire word wasn’t necessary.

“I will never forget,” Lukea continues. “She confided in me that she usually only played clubs, and it was so funny when she was doing a sound check at Sleeping Village, which was like her first-ever really ‘proper’ sound check, and the sound engineer was like, ‘So do you want any reverb on your vocals?’ And she was just like, ‘Would that make it juicy?’ Like right then and there, I knew that I was obsessed with her. She’s just effortlessly hilarious and entertaining at all moments.”

Pixel Grip value creativity and instinct above craft—though they’re hardly green or unrefined. All three members have been playing in bands since their early teens, and Freund and Ommen studied music-business management and audio production, respectively, at Columbia College. Still, their priority is the fan experience. And the video for “Demon Chaser” dramatizes what they hope that experience will feel like.

“Rita reached out about the collab,” Monāe writes. “I wasn’t sure what to expect, but like any bad bitch, I’m versatile and always ready. When they sent the track and Rita’s lyrics, I immediately knew I wanted to chant a rhythmic, sadistic poem of my sexual fantasies (reality). It wasn’t until I showed up to the studio that they heard or even knew what I was going to say. But the whole recording process was a dream, especially it being my first time in a studio. (I produce all my tracks on my phone and record vocals in my bathroom.) The way everyone encouraged and highlighted what I do was truly so incredible.”

  • Emulsion Lab made the video for Pixel Grip’s first Arena single, “Pursuit.”

Pixel Grip’s approach places them in a long lineage of industrial musicians building on the legacy of the genre’s LGBTQ+ pioneers—and in Chicago, that means Wax Trax! first and foremost. In the three decades since that famous label’s heyday, a lot has changed, and unlike so many of their Wax Trax! ancestors, Pixel Grip and their peers—performers like Girlboifriend, Fee Lion, and Club Music—don’t have to be even the slightest bit coy about who they are and who they’re playing for. This creates more flexibility in who can join the scene and how they can contribute. An openly queer-accepting community will always be richer than one where aggro edgelords are poisoning the well.

“You might be the only person who listens to techno or goth music at your job or in your class or high school,” say Lukea. “But then you come to the show of your favorite artists, and you’re just surrounded by friends instantly. You’re surrounded by that feeling of love and connection and intimacy where literally everyone that’s around you is your family.”  v