4th Curtis: All-trans Minneapolis band turn pain into a party on debut LP

The members of 4th Curtis chompin’ on glow sticks

The members of 4th Curtis chompin’ on glow sticks Misha Estrin

When you first meet Lex Noens, frontperson of all-trans indie-pop band 4th Curtis, you’re struck by Noens’ unencumbered belief in music and identity, plus the avalanche of quips deployed during conversation.

“Lex has a Kanye West sort of confidence,” says Jared Hemming, a longtime friend of Noens’ and drummer for local band the Florists. “People go to concerts because they want to see someone on stage that believes in themselves.”

Queer stories in general, but especially trans narratives, are often presented as tragedies. When I, a trans woman, talk to my loved ones about my identity, their concern for my wellbeing sometimes seems larger than their love for who I am.

Which, I have to admit, makes sense; media portrayals of trans people often involve suicide, homelessness, crime, and general despair. Pop culture has made recent inroads to widen those perspectives, especially with the popularity of TV shows like Transparent and Orange Is the New Black and films like Tangerine. These stories recognize and relish other parts of the trans experience that should be celebrated; they illuminate the joys of being trans, not just the struggles.

Which is why 4th Curtis is so important. The band — quite possibly Minnesota’s only all-trans one — will celebrate their debut album, I Won the Pageant, on February 26 at 7th St. Entry.

It’s a rollicking, rocking, poppy smash of an LP with wry, smirking lyrics like “I know I’m not depressed/Depression is what you get when you’re trying” from standout track “Everything’s Gone Wrong.” Considering the bouncy melodies, you’d expect a song about joyous things like cumming while eating rocky road, not one about life collapsing.

Originally a solo project for Noens, 4th Curtis became a full-on group in October 2015, when they tracked demos at their very first practice.

“We were already kind of good,” Noens notes, sounding more pleased with the happy coincidence than braggadocious.

4th Curtis consists of Noens on vocals and guitar, Ty Gale on keys, and Maddie Morley on the drums. The band members say they feel less like a trio and more like a big, extended trans family. A fan once told 4th Curtis that their music prevented them from committing suicide.

“A huge aspect of 4th Curtis is community-building and found family, through radical honesty about gender, disability, mental illness,” Gales says. “I think trans people and disabled people are more drawn to that radical honesty. Being honest in that way, in a public forum, when you’re trans, when you’re disabled, is not necessarily accepted, but it is vital.”

Lydia Liza, a friend of the band who will perform at their release show, likens 4th Curtis’ sound to current indie-rock standouts Angel Olsen and Mitski. Liza, who met Noens while they both attended McNally Smith College of Music, says she was blown away by Noens’ songwriting ability in class. She thinks I Won the Pageant will “raise your empathy for people with these experiences.”

Primarily written by Noens, 4th Curtis’ lyrics come from a vast collage of experiences. While gender identity is the band’s primary influence, Noens also brings the perspective of someone living with a lifelong disability. Noens has a condition known as fibular hemimelia, resulting in a shortened right femur that makes mobility difficult and causes chronic pain. Noens says medical treatments haven’t helped.

“Disability is much harder for people to notice, so you don’t get a lot of the same hate you get for being trans,” Noens says. “But there are a lot more subtle struggles. When you’re disabled it’s a lot harder to sugarcoat stuff. Your relationship with sex changes, your relationship with everything changes.”

Noens & Co. say their shared cynicism makes their songs better, and maybe counterintuitively adds some more zing.

“It’s a lot easier to be a pessimist,” Noens says. “When you accept [your disability], I seriously feel like you have the world figured out, because the one thing I’ll never have is physical comfort, and everyone else is trying to find this big, scary reason for living.”

For 4th Curtis, I Won the Pageant is about celebrating the pain and toil they experience as marginalized people in society.

“We started writing all these songs that were really bitter, but also they sound almost celebratory,” Noens says. “I Won the Pageant is about someone poised to be in power, but isn’t yet recognized.”

The album was written after the death of Noens’ grandmother, who apparently won the Miss Virginia pageant many years ago, but decided to abdicate her throne and marry her sweetheart instead. Her story of choosing between her sash and her husband inspired much of the album.

Current events also deeply informed the LP. Gale emailed every band 4th Curtis had ever played with after Donald Trump was elected president in November. The email’s message? Resiliency and resistance through nonstop gigging.

“A lot of the songwriting process for 4th Curtis is fueled by spite,” Gale says. “If we can crystalize that anger, that’s what we’re trying to do. What we make is something more sparkly.”

The beauty in their songs is kind of fake, Noens says, because it rests on that anger and discontentment.

“It reminds me of fake gems, like something made out of aluminum foil, it sparkles just like the real thing, but in the end...” Noens trails off.

“It’s just garbage,” Gale adds.

They laugh, hopefully because they know what they’re doing isn’t trash. It certainly sounds like treasure.

4th Curtis
With: Lydia Liza, Tony Peachka, Ahem
When: 7 p.m. Sun., Feb. 26
Where: 7th St. Entry
Tickets: $8; more info here