Politics, Privilege, and Crying to Podcasts: I Went on a First Date with MOTHXR's Penn Badgley
He spent five years in 'Gossip Girl' and now Badgley's recalibrated with his band MOTHXR. On this date we talked about the deep stuff, because fluffy is so whatever.
All photos by Yudi Ela
“So have you ever had a first date where your entire conversation was being recorded?” I asked Penn Badgley, as we’re seated in Freehold, a café-slash-bar tucked away in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. He hadn’t, though it wouldn’t be the most unheard of thing to happen to him—considering most of his twenties were spent starring in one of the late aughts more popular TV series and now he’s in a band on the up and up.
Truth be told, I've always been low-key enamored by Badgley since his role as "the other Tucker" in John Tucker Must Die. He played the pensive nice guy, characteristics further solidified through his role on Gossip Girl as Dan "Lonely Boy" Humphrey who viewed the lavish Upper East Side life through a flip phone camera, as Badgley's character sequestered himself to Brooklyn for the most part, only to ironically poke his head out to collect the necessary data to be (spoiler alert) Gossip Girl.
When Badgley left that role, the almost inevitable dichotomy of artist versus art was presented. He was tapped for the role of Jeff Buckley in the tragically slept-on 2012 film Greetings from Tim Buckley, and it was a moment he now regards as his turning point, Penn wanted to make art after that—be it film or music. What came next was something of a surprishe: he formed MOTHXR, a band including Jimmy Giannopoulos (also of Lolawolf), Simon Oscroft, and Darren Will. The group’s debut album Centerfold arrived this past Spring, with its success being (as Badgley puts it) “slow and steady,” landing the band a worldwide tour opening for The Neighbourhood. As for the music itself, it's a hybrid of the past and the present, seamlessly infusing slick 80s Hall and Oates-style vibes with electro-pop sensibility. Think Chromeo with more live instruments and a seedier, insouciant slink.
MOTHXR will be headlining a tour this Fall, so with a few months to spare, Badgley and I decided to go on an entirely un-organic first date for Noisey. First off, the 29-year-old is in a relationship with singer Domino Kirke, sister of Jemima from Girls and Lola from Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America. Aside from the obvious girlfriend, and according to Badgley his lack of “dating” experience, this guy has mastered the first date. He’s attentive—even when girls run up and ask for a selfie (he politely declined until our date was over)—he cares about the world, and is quite possibly one of the wokest white guys I’ve ever met (spoken as a true woke white girl). Our first date fodder was heavy (you’ll only get a glimpse, unless you’d like the unabridged version at a later time), discussing politics, D’Angelo, religion, and hip-hop. I also whipped out a book about cults and tarot cards and he didn’t run the other way. Which makes us soulmates, I’m sure you’ll agree.
Noisey: Now that you have some time off from touring—I know people say they have to mentally prepare for tour, but do you have to mentally prepare for stability?
Penn Badgley: To be honest, I feel like I’ve been living out of a suitcase since I’ve maybe been about 20, so I guess I haven’t really ever gotten good at what you’re talking about. I’ve always been sort of moving, even when I’m not.
At 20, though, weren’t you local to NYC?
That’s when I moved to NY for Gossip Girl. I use that as a benchmark because since then in a way I don’t know that I’ve ever remained in one place for very long, because that’s the nature of someone who’s working a lot in a creative industry. And that’s amazing. And also, now, I’m gonna be 30 this year—that’s a decade [laughs]—and I feel like I’m ready to…not slow down, but to build a life and like have a home.
So how does that work when your band is just blowing up?
I don’t know. That’s quite a loaded question that I don’t know how to answer. [Laughs.] It’s a major question in my life at the moment.
With this inconsistent schedule, how have you managed to keep a relationship?
It’s kind of like everything else when you’re put in this position. It’s not that it’s any different from any other relationship: the dynamics are heightened, the stakes are heightened, the potential for drama is heightened. So either you get caught up in the drama and everything is really exhaustively up and down—really high and really low where you’re just really reacting at all times. Or you have to, at least what I’ve done alternatively after doing that for many years, do some real soul searching and personal work to not be an unstable reactive human being.
Did you have to have a conversation about this, like “I’m going to be packing my bags and leaving for a while…”
My girlfriend’s father is the drummer from Free and Bad Company [Simon Kirke] so she’s all too familiar with it.
As a woman, though, you can see your dad doing it, but your boyfriend…
Trust me, it’s not not an issue. [Laughs.] The sort of modesty and restraint that I’m speaking about trying to practice in life, she’s trying to in all these other ways. It’s a difficulty that’s brought us together. We’re able to manage that outcome. We’re closer for it, we’re more honest as a result, but it’s been an immense challenge.
A lot relationships can’t stand that… where they have to change the rules.
Yeah, but the rules set by whom and for what and for when? It’s like, neither of us drinks. That’s an enormous… anybody would have more reason for concern when their significant other leaves them for three months surrounded by sex and alcohol. The fact that I’m never gonna lose my shit quite like that I guess helps.
Have you still been able to sneak in some rock star moments while you’re sober?
Absolutely! It’s taken a while though. First it was just being sober on stage, and then for a lot of reasons I just stopped drinking. It took me a while to learn how to really let go on stage sober, and I wanted to do that because I was like, “OK if I’m gonna be playing music for the rest of my life do I want to be this dependent on a few shots before the show this early in the game?” Like, I just started.
I remember you Instagrammed a pic of an all-gender bathroom in North Carolina and commented on the welcoming aspect of that despite what politicians and “the law” may state. Have you found pleasant surprises like this on tour a lot? Or have you found certain regions still have more narrow-minded people than others?
You know what I think I’m learning is that it’s really damaging to generalize about any group of people. Ever. The truth is, all prejudice is born out of generalization and misunderstanding. I started to realize that more on this tour more than ever. Not to give a too broad or esoteric answer, but it does have practical repercussions that are good because if you’re not making those types of generalizations either way… I don’t know, maybe one of the privileges as a person of privilege that we should be sacrificing is making generalizations ever. And that sort of occurred to me in North Carolina after seeing that.
I’m only speaking for myself here, because I understand that the experience of, for instance a Black woman is going to be radically different from mine and I would never try to police the language or behavior of anyone that’s been marginalized. That’s part of the problem. However, for someone who has not been marginalized, at least in those ways, to me I’m recognizing it as damaging to speak of anyone in a generally discouraging and prejudiced manner. It’s dehumanizing either way.
When did you become aware of your own privilege?
Very early on. I don’t know if at that age I would’ve called it privilege, but honestly when I first started listening to music, because I love rap. The first record I bought was The Fugees’ The Score. I bought the tape and the CD. I must have been like eight or nine. Listening to that record, I was like this is a completely different world from the one in which I live. Even though I was living in the middle of fucking nowhere in the sticks of Washington State—certainly not with a lot of money or exposure to the nicer material things in life—I was still not living that life. I was not living through the experience that I was hearing on that record. I recognized immediately that this was coming from a different world, and yet being young enough and hopefully innocent enough that it wasn’t political or racial, but understanding that there was a difference.
Also understanding what genuinely transcends race or any other categorization: appreciating that which was universal in the pain and the struggle and the human experience. I think I held onto both of those qualities; I think I found them at an early age and held onto them as I continued to listen to a lot of music coming from a culture that was not my own. Especially as I found my first and so far last… the only person creative or not who I’ve ever kind of idolized is D’Angelo. His music—I deeply believe all good music transcends any categorization of race—at the same time, it’s still incredibly Black music. I’ve always gravitated towards that. I don’t know why. I personally think that the greater the oppression and the marginalization, the closer that people are to the harshest reality this world has to offer. Anyone exposed to that degree of that reality is going to make a certain kind of art. It’s just gonna carry a different quality than someone who hasn’t lived like that.
So I think there’s a reason why the world has reacted to music that has come from some of the hardest places in the world: if it’s Chicago, if at a time it was Brooklyn, if at a time it was the Bay Area, if at a time it was anywhere else in the world. Not just America. So yeah, there’s an obvious correlation there, but it’s very complex. So to answer your question… I think it was when I bought that record [The Score], and I think I was nine.
These are heavy first date topics…
I feel like every first date is. It’s like, “So what’s the meaning of life for you?”
So you’re a soccer player and fan?
Kind of. [Laughs.] The truth is I haven’t played in years and haven’t been able to follow it, so it would be disingenuous to say that, but there was a time.
You played when you were younger though. Did you ever consider it professionally?
[Laughs.] No, I would have to be a remarkable athlete to do that, and I’m not.
Do you follow the #sports at all?
Whew, yeah me neither.
There was a time when I followed soccer the way a jock would follow football or basketball. I knew the stats, I knew the players, I was obsessed. But that was when I had the time for that.
Is there anything else you’re obsessed about outside of music?
No, that’s what I’m currently required to be obsessed about, I’d say.
Do you miss acting at all?
No, because I don’t feel like I’m away from it. If anything, I’m trying to find it: the core of it, which is really pure and creative.
Coming from the projects that I’ve come from that have gotten me recognition, I don’t feel like I was acting or living this life as a fulfilled real actor. [Gossip Girl] was a job, and I’ve always spoken of it as such, I’ve always appreciated it as such. When I have spoken about it, it has been misconstrued and taken out of context. I’m grateful for everything it was and is; I’m also realistic of what it was. I don’t feel now any further away from acting than I did when I was on that show or any other show.
So when you said that you wanted to stop and… I don’t think you said “settle down,” but…
No, just have a home and build a home; have a home base and really just operate from that home base. And not just be baseless, because then even when you’re at home you don’t feel at home.
Do you think it’s New York?
I don’t know. Probably.
Well you’ve moved further upstate now…
Yeah, so I’ve jumped out of the city already to see what that’s like. I think I’ll move back, but I don’t know if I want to participate in the whole gentrification of every neighborhood, anywhere. Is that possible to step outside of? I don’t know.
So is the Palisades Parkway your best friend?
That’s funny, yeah! I actually enjoy that stretch. Driving and listening to music is something you don’t get to do a lot of in New York. Now I do.
Do you ever listen to yourself?
I did the day the record came out to remind myself what we’re putting out. I remember on the day being like [nods in agreement]. I appreciated it.
What do you listen to mostly when you’re driving?
The new Chance record for me, Coloring Book is amazing, and I’ve also gotten back into his second mixtape Acid Rap as well. It’s kind of remarkable to see that much growth from one record to another. It’s like outward and inward, it’s material and spiritual. It’s pretty beautiful. Now since I’m driving a lot, I listen to a lot of podcasts.
Which podcasts do you listen to?
RadioLab is the gift from God to the world. They’re just on another level. If I were to meet those guys—Rob and Jad—I would fan out. I would love to contribute to that show in some capacity, but I’m sure millions of people feel that way too. I love that podcast; sonically it’s such an immersive experience. They’re quite literally able to take the matter of anything and make it a heartbreaking, soul-reviving story. It’s fucking unbelievable. I regularly cry listening to podcasts.
So you drive and cry?
Are you like me where you show up somewhere after crying and have to lie about your allergies because I look like a total mess after crying?
I think I have that good fortune of just always looking charmingly disheveled, so it doesn’t matter either way. [Laughs.]
So I guess we should talk more first date-ish stuff since we keep getting deep.
What is first date stuff supposed to be though? Surface-level bullshit?
Basically. I mean my first dates always typically go like ours.
Yeah, like the state of the world…
Or the state of your soul…
Some people might be uncomfortable with that.
Speaking of uncomfortable, I was switching purses for our date and I had two things in there that I almost took out, but I thought “I bet Penn would appreciate these.” One is a book called The Girls by Emma Cline, which is a book about these girls who join a cult. The other is Doreen Virtue’s Oracle cards. And I was thinking I might look like a fucking nut.
No I am way too, maybe to a fault, but I’m way too receptive to that kind of stuff. No that’s great. And that Doreen Virtue—not quite my cup of tea, but I see her stacks of cards in a lot of friends’ houses, a lot of girls. I used to have this animal card deck, like medicine cards with animals. I think it’s supposedly from some kind of Native American practice. It’s hard to know the real nature of who wrote the book and whether or not they were re-appropriating, but there was a time when I tapped into the whole card thing.
It feels like in first date language it’s a “no-no.”
But see I feel like it’s the opposite! Constant meaningful conversation I think is exhausting, but to me the first three dates are all this kind of stuff. “Who were you when you were 12? Who did you think you were? When did you start to start to experience that you were different from your parents?” I feel like Americans talk incessantly about this stuff…
In our age bracket…
Yeah because before, not at all…
“Where did you go to college?” “Can you cook?”
[Laughs.] Yeah and now in places like New York, everyone just really goes there.
Yeah this purse right here is a Brooklyn first date bag, because it could never land me a date in Jersey.
Yeah, it would never fly. It’s alright with me though. I’m cool.
When you first started acting, did you date, how should I say, “regular girls”?
I actually dated very little. For lack of a better word, I was essentially maybe paranoid of anyone’s motives. I’m glad I’m not dating an actress now. I don’t want to generalize about actresses at all, but I think anybody trying to work in that world is up against a lot of bullshit, and it’s hard to keep a level head on your shoulders no matter who you are. And women are under an immense amount of a different kind of acute pressure and scrutiny and stigmas. I’m glad to not be solely in that world, especially romantically. I never made the effort to date someone who was in my field or not. It just happens that way.
How do you shield yourself from that though? People could be taking a piece of you all the time.
There was a time when I was 24, when it was a lot harder. I was under a lot more scrutiny and probably more pressure. I don’t really think about it in those terms so much anymore. Finding some sort of balance requires a deep belief in the immaterial. You have to, in my perspective.
That’s an incredible milestone to reach mentally and spiritually by 30.
Well, God is that one [topic], where it’s like [freezes] “Oh shit, what are they gonna say next?” Whether you believe, whether you don’t, whether you’re not sure, whatever. It’s literally the number one thing…
God and politics.
And then you mix them, and the world ends. [Laughs.] The only option someone in a position like that has where there’s just increased attention and money and privilege… it’s stronger than you if you can’t submit to some kind of greater existence.
This is actually second into third date conversation…
Yeah it is. Especially if you’re gonna get married—not that dates lead to marriage, but everyone has that moment where they fantasize “Could I? Kids? Maybe?” You have to have some kind of fundamental agreement on the nature of reality I think.
It’s interesting though with this election, if you have first dates with this kind of dialogue, it could get ugly really quickly.
Oh yeah, absolutely!
Like, “Oh you want to vote for WHO? OK are we cool? Should I just leave now?”
Well you’ve gotten your whole first date personality down. I feel like I know exactly who you are.
To a degree. My best.
It’s like the first date can be your most honest self or the exact opposite to land that second date where you start sliding in parts of your honest self.
Or maybe it’s aspirational. Maybe that’s who you think you are, maybe 30 percent of the time. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve been on a date in my 20s. A date? How do you classify that? You know what? I think I’ve been on two. I can think of two instances where it was a date.
Where did you go?
Sushi, a place on second and 12th Ave. And the other time, Maison Premiere—that bar on Bedford Avenue. I’m talking about dates that didn’t result in what you now define as part of your relationship. As it’s obvious, I go pretty intense pretty quickly [laughs], so for me when I meet somebody if it’s going to result in a relationship it happens pretty fast. So the reality is, I haven’t been on many dates. A date implies a seeking of intent for a relationship. I’ve never sought a relationship. They just happen.
Kathy Iandoli is glad her love of Penn Badgley was only strengthened by their first date. Follow her on Twitter.