Mina Caputo: "There are family members and friends I don’t talk to anymore"
Interview: Life of Agony singer Mina Caputo on growing up in a hate-filled home, female oppression, and the dangers of touring
It has been a long break. Thirteen years passed between Life of Agony’s fourth album and the emergence of their fifth, A Place Where There's No More Pain, last year. During that time there had been some of the usual shenanigans – hiatuses, a split, trying to find a purpose to the band – but something rather more profound too: singer Keith Caputo began the process of transitioning to being a woman.
Mina Caputo speaks slowly and thoughtfully. Some of what she says is eyebrow-raising – she thinks the US government’s HAARP (High Frequency Active Auroral Research) programme might be responsible for the spate of late-summer hurricanes – while some of it is terrifying, as she outlines her fears about touring as a trans woman, but she is never less than fascinating.
Tell us about your childhood home. What did your parents do?
My mom died at twenty, so she didn’t get to do much except give birth to magical me. My dad was an airbrush artist, he was a tattoo artist in jail, he was a professional junkie. He built Harley-Davidson motorcycles and repaired them for the Hells Angels, and he painted murals on the tanks. He built sports cars. He was a really talented guy. But they didn’t raise me, because they were messed up with drugs, so I grew up with my dad’s parents. My grandfather worked for the government – I don’t know exactly what, for all I know he could have been one the shadowy people – and my grandmother took care of the household. I was the fourth child – they raised me and that was that. I pretty much left home when I was seventeen, eighteen years old and then my life took on the path it did.
Was Brooklyn a fertile place for metal and hard rock when Life of Agony formed in the late eighties?
Rock’n’roll, hardcore, punk rock – people seemed to have most fun with all the loud and crazy music. That was the scene. I still loved the bands I loved in high school: Zeppelin, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Stones, David Bowie, Prince. I haven’t changed my musical taste much since I was a kid: Eurythmics, George Michael, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, Billie Holliday, Edith Piaf. Folks that opened avenues of expression beyond description. Not like the bullshit today. These days you’re getting a McDonald’s version of music. I play classical piano, so I’m no stranger to the great composers. I’m very well-versed in the language of music.
What made you decide to become a singer in a rock band?
I wanted to become a classical piano player, and I dreamed of being someone like Nina Simone more than anything else. But when you’re a teenager and you hate your fucking life and you hate your family and you hate everyone and everything and you’re filled up with anger and sadness and confusion … My cousin and his friends were already playing in punk rock bands, and they knew I had some camaraderie with the mystery of music, so they were: “You’re singing for our fucking band.” I’m like: “I can’t fucking sing, nor do I want to be in a rock band, nor do I want to be the centre of fucking attention.” I’m the biggest hermit in the world. But they forced me, and we used to play high-school battles of the bands. A couple of years later Life Of Agony was formed, and we did our first show in 1989.
What did you want to achieve with Life Of Agony?
Nothing. We just wanted to have fun. We were too young to understand dreams being able to manifest right in the palm of your hand. Or maybe we knew all along what would happen.
When did you realise that Life Of Agony could be more than just a band playing the local bars?
When we couldn’t play local bars any more and we were playing thousand-seaters three nights in a row without a record deal. We blew up on the scene before any of the record exec bobbleheads showed up.
Did you enjoy becoming a rock star, or did it become a career, a job?
We still have fun now. We don’t overplay, because we want to keep it fun . We take two- or three-week trips and then disappear for a couple of months. We know if we’re out on the road for six months we’ll fight each other. You can’t be in each other’s faces all the time. The only time the fun is taken out of it is when the idiots around the band fuck things up. But being out on the road these days, the political climate is dangerous and disgusting and musicians have more to worry about. We show up at a venue and our first concerns are exits and security and how we can keep the band and the crew and the people safe.
Do you fear, as a trans woman, that touring would be more perilous now than before?
Honestly, I’m a little afraid to tour middle America. If the right tour came along – environments would have to be right, the money would have to be right, the team around us would have to be right, the venues would have to be right. But I’m definitely not that enthusiastic about playing somewhere like North Carolina. It’s fucked up.
When were you first sure you were transgender?
I knew I was different at ten years old. When my grandmother used to dress me, I wanted to wear pretty dresses. I didn’t know why, and I didn’t think there was anything wrong with that. Neither did my grandmother. But my grandfather was so old-school Italian. He had a lot of hate. If you weren’t Italian, you were on the shit list, basically. So he hated the Jews, he hated the blacks, he hated the gays, he hated transsexuals. So I grew up in a very hate-filled home. So I couldn’t tell my grandfather, but my grandmother nurtured those delicate feelings I was having. But she would warn me: “Don’t tell grandpa, he’ll kill us.” And he would have, probably. I grew up with that fear and I carried it my entire life, until I came out in 2008.
Weren’t there friends you could talk to? Did you have to internalise everything?
I internalised everything because when we grew up, if a so-called boy was wearing his T-shirt too tight everyone call him gay and a faggot. So God forbid I told my friends that I was all about the feminine, and femininity is my point of worship, and I don’t want to live as a guy. Our culture has been oppressing femininity for hundreds of years. All the institutions that have been for humanity oppress the feminine. Of course they don’t want people like me surfacing, because it’s a threat to their order of things.
What prompted your decision to come out and begin to transition?
A lot of fans were poking fun. I was slowly awakening my audience with more and more pictures of me being my true feminine self, and I would get a lot of shit for it. One day, I lashed out because someone was asking: “What the fuck is your problem? You’re disgusting. I hate your band and your music now.” Enough was enough. I had to stand up for myself: “Fuck you and all you motherfuckers who don’t love me for me. Guess what? I’m transsexual.” That was in 2008, when I came out to friends and family. I started hormone therapy in 2009. Then in 2011, when my body was really changing a lot, I outed myself publicly and let the world in. That’s when I was really getting a lot of shit from people who couldn’t understand.
Metal and punk like to celebrate themselves as scenes that cherish individuality, but it’s not always that way, is it? How did those scenes react to you?
I put out a lot of love. I’d say ninety per cent of the reaction from the world has been: You go for it! We love you! Fuck everyone! People are happy to see me happy. There are family members and friends I don’t talk to any more. But hey, we live on a planet with thousands of different species. I think it’s incredibly sad that people think there are only two kinds of human beings: male and female. The more you dig for the truth, the greater the mystery becomes.
What do you want people listening to the new Life Of Agony album to take away from that record?
Courage. Inspiration. Fearlessness. That’s what instinctively comes to mind. I want people to be empowered. I hope this album helps people dig deep within themselves to uncover everything about themselves: the good, the bad, the ugly, the beautiful.