A wide variety of influences shaped what NYC queer culture was and is over the decades, but factors that today’s children have little understanding of include punk rock, avant garde and the new wave movement. Enter young Carlos Acosta, who helps keep much of that alive in the scene with his band The Debbie-Donnas, the girl punk band showcases he produces and deejays, the iconic divas he leads us to worship (not least of which Madonna herself), and just his entire presence. August and September are already proving to be busy months for him… let’s get it on with Carlos while there’s still time!
Thotyssey: Heyyyyyy gurl what’s up!? You’re always so busy these days with all your projects and events… what are you doing right this second?
Carlos Acosta: Laying in bed, watching Gordan Ramsey Uncharted and planning my dinner!
You cook too? What a catch!
Yes, I love to cook. It helps me focus and relax. I love cooking exotic foods, using spicy ingredients…I also love making ice cream!
OMG I’m moving in! It seems like just yesterday when I would see you among the Boots & Saddle regulars, as far back as the original Christopher Street location. I still miss that place.
Oh yes! I miss Boots & Saddle as well! I used to frequent the original location as well as the new location, practically every day. It became a safe space for me. During the final days of it being open, I was readying a party that I wanted to get started… but as we know, the plans fell through after it’s closing.
That would’ve been so fun.
Are you a native New Yorker, by the way?
My family is from the Bronx. I was brought up and raised in North Jersey, right across the river. You can decide whether I’m a true New Yorker or just a Jersey Boy! I like it here in Jersey; I love how quiet, safe and accessible it is. People tend to criticize it far too easily!
They sure do. And music is obviously a big part of what you do and who you are. What was the first music you were into growing up?
I remember I would just gravitate towards whatever records, cassettes and even some A-tracks I found lying around my different family homes. It varied from Frank Sinatra and The Stooges to Run DMC, Madonna and Spanish icons like Isabelle Pantoja and Rocio Durcall (who sing and write the best love ballads ever, in my opinion). I was a sponge to all genres. As I got older, I definitely favored new wave, grunge and alternative rock n’ roll.
In the olden days of NYC, rock and punk and new wave were the soundtrack and inspiration of gay nightlife… even drag. It was all about counterculture and rebellion, and of course, style. Today, gay bar music is almost entirely Top 40.
Ah man, it’s really heartbreaking that there aren’t more queer rock n’ roll events / spaces to frequent. There are practically zero in Manhattan aside from the occasional event. I find there are more in Brooklyn, but it’s not the same. I have memories at Don Hill’s that are irreplaceable! I believe the queer community is directly inspired and impacted by all the facets of rock n’ roll music, which is what I’m trying to keep alive with my music and some of my events.
I was just re-watching Blondie’s “Rapture” video (with Basquiat’s little cameo), and was marveling at how wonderfully gay it was.
Funny you mention “Rapture.” I’m attempting a performance of it soon! I’m a huge fan of how Blondie took on dozens of styles and sounds, and pushed their sound beyond CBGB’s into pop culture. In many ways, there’s no turning back… which frustrates me. The only thing we can do is create our own art and put it out there.
Not to slight Ariana Grande and her young fans… she’s got some bops, and her hair is cute!
Hey, nothing against a girl with a great voice having musical success, but the pop princesses of today are as dull as dishwater!
When did you start playing music yourself?
I was always running around singing, obsessed with MTV, the videos, and any music I could find from any decade, really. My earliest memory of playing instruments was in the mid 90’s. I was taken by the alternative 90’s movement, and I remember my mother taking the rent money and buying me my first guitar. I was playing Jewel and Lisa Loeb as soon as my dial-up DSL modem would get me to a guitar tab site, so I could learn my first chords. I felt like a rockstar, but I was terrible!
We all gotta start somewhere! Tell us about The Debbie Donnas, a Stonewall house band of sorts that you front for your gurl Chauncey Dandridge’s monthly Freak-Out, a spoken word / variety event there. It’s mostly you on guitar and vocals, with some interpretive dancers and occasionally other musicians. How did that all start?
Ahh The Debbie Donnas! Well, it all started when Chauncey asked me to perform for Madonna Worship, which was the inception of The DD’s. We sang “Holiday” on ukulele with a xylophone and a tambourine! I was so nervous to screw it up, but it was only three chords… and everyone sang along!
Afterward, I was given the opportunity to perform at Chauncey’s monthly variety show Freak-Out and I took it as a challenge! I love covering songs and reinterpreting them with dance and video projection, so I conceptualize ideas and ask dancers / performers to join in. Once you perform with us, you’re a Debbie Donna for life! I also incorporate original songs that I write with other Debbie Donnas, and sometimes perform my own solo work.
I came up with the name when I realized the dichotomy of my love for Madonna–the most popular female artist of all time–and [Blondie’s] Debbie Harry, who is rock n’ roll gold! I have a love for pop culture, and an eternal love affair with the underground NYC scene that I will always celebrate and keep alive.
Freak-Out and The Debbie Donnas return to Stonewall on Thursday, Aug 29th. What can we expect for this new season of shows?
I’m excited to see new rotating artists that I (along with the other Debbies) get to share the stage with, and what they come up with! A big reward in doing these events is communing with these other artists, getting to know them and learning from each other. Those that return monthly to perform, it’s always a joy to see their growth and how they elevate their craft! As for The Debbie Donnas, we always want to entertain and inspire. Expect the unexpected!
And speaking of Chauncey and Stonewall… Madonna! You and Chauncey are two of her more vocal Stanners, and she’s certainly been a major presence here in New York for World Pride. Were you at Stonewall for her now legendary pop-up acoustic performance on New Year’s Eve?
Oh yes! What a magical night! I’ve spent so much time at Stonewall in the last few years, I couldn’t find any other place I’d want to spend New Year’s… so I just went there! When she showed up I was shaking, and when she began singing “Like A Prayer,” her voice was so beautiful, I couldn’t help but cry! Likewise, for some of the Stonewall staff that are as big a fan as I, it was an unforgettable experience!
Amazing! Now, her latest Madame X has proven to be a divisive album, even among her most ardent fans. What’s your review?
I think she shifted directions from her last three mostly common pop records, and unleashed a world pop fusion concept album! It’s among her boldest records, at times bizarre and sonically unsettling… yet there are plenty of very vulnerable moments that really shine. If she’s upsetting even her Die Hard fans, that’s a great thing! It’s what she does best. Can’t wait for the tour, as I’m sure it’s going to be a beautiful centerpiece for the album!
We can all pay homage to the goddess at Stonewall on August 17th for Chauncey’s annual party, Madonna Worship! The Debbie Donnas will be part of a huge roster of great local performers doing Madonna numbers between Chauncey’s Madge discography spins. Do you know what number you’re doing?
I’m very excited for Madonna Worship! The performances always blow me away, and Chauncey’s DJ set is incredible! His love for M’s music is true, and the way that shines through his DJ set on Worship is unparalleled! We are shuffling between two songs, but I think we’ve settled on one. Not sure if I should give it away, but the performance will be pretty straightforward and the song is one of her late 90’s classics!
Tell us about the origin and purpose of your production brand, Icon Project.
Icon Project began when I started throwing Madonna parties at Barracuda, and fans / friends wanted an official place to know when the events would take place. I’m terrible with social media, and really try to avoid doing anything too official (as you can probably tell from my lack of social media presence with Icon Project)! I love icons, and this is my little project to celebrate them and music!
More recently, I’ve branches into VJing a monthly event at The VNYL called GRRRL PWR celebrating women in rock n’ roll, and fusing drag performances with live female-fronted rock!
How do you find these bands?
My partner in crime Tim Martinez aka Tim No. 37 is an alternative rock legend! He has connections with bands all across the country, and is always enthusiastic to bring on some fierce talent. We recently had Mrs. Smith, which was an honor!
You’ll be back at The VNYL on Wednesday, August 21st for an all-new GRRRL PWR.
We’re premiering Aurin’s new music video “Brother,” which I just got the chance to preview! Man, these girls are the perfect example of girl power, and the video is an emotional anthem of empowerment and actually features Tim! I’m proud of him, and honored to be premiering the video at my event! We also have amazing drag performances and a few other bands lined up! We’ll reveal the performers soon!
Another band, The Muckrakers, will be there with you as you DJ at Arrogant Swine this Sunday, August 11th for an event called “Drag Queen Hosted Pig Roast,” with some of your favorite drag queens performing: Chola Spears, Novaczar and Olivia Lux.
Oh, it’s such a fun event! Arrogant Swine is basically an open space with great BBQ food, stiff drinks (they have hundreds of varieties of whiskeys) and a fun staff! I basically spin some music and assist the queens as they entertain the crowd! The Muckrakers are performing an acoustic set, which I’m excited to see; they are badass! It should be fun!
And on August 22nd, you, Chauncey and The Debbie Donnas will be at it again, but this time in your home state for a Jersey City Pride event: Fringe Fest at FM!
I absolutely love the FM venue, and am excited to get back and perform alongside amazing performers like Bella Noche and the hilarious Evan Laurence! [The night will be] disco-themed. So as much as we want to perform originals, we’re going to stick to the theme and bring on a fun performance of disco classics–and maybe throw in a political number for good measure! Pride is about remembering our history and coming together to celebrate all the facets our culture. The countless murders and deaths that continue to happen are something we can’t stay quiet about. It’s always on my mind, and it’s always something I want to incorporate in some way to my performances.
Will you and / or The Debbie Donnas record anything soon?
We’d love to record a handful of originals we have! I’d also love to find a producer for my own solo project, leaning more towards grunge / alternative rock! If you know anyone, send them my way!
We’re on the case! Anything else on the horizon?
I’m excited to get back onstage mostly, but who knows what the future holds? I want to keep my queer nightlife family close, and continue to express myself as an artist!
You go! But one last question first: with the popularity of Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, which music legend’s life should next get the big screen treatment?
I’m not a fan of these biopics, to be perfectly honest! Essentially, there isn’t enough time in a film to capture the “life” of an artist. Big production companies also strip a lot of the story to fit a wider audience. I think a mini-series would be more just, and if I had to pick a person that is larger than life that deserves their lives narrated on film, in any capacity… it would be Cher. Her many incarnations lived in front of the camera within so many important decades in politics, popular culture, fashion and music… it’d be one hell of a story to watch! I’d also settle for Elizabeth Taylor. But I can dream, so why settle?
Why indeed? Thanks, Carlos! Hope to see you soon!
Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Carlos Acosta’s upcoming events, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.