Queer Singer-Songwriter Zee Machine Talks About His Battle With Addiction, Sampling RuPaul & His New EP

Robbie Sweeny

When he was a struggling artist, Joe Bissell was looking for inspiration. The San Francisco-based singer-songwriter had spent a year in New York trying to make his music career take off, so when he moved back to California, he started partaking in dangerous drug habits, specifically meth, to find something he thought he didn't have.

“At first I felt like this is what I needed to inspire me, because I had a really hard time writing from a happy place,” he says in an interview with Billboard. “But in the end, it kind of took away everything I thought it was giving me.”

Three years later, Bissell is sober and has released his debut EP, Brainchemistry, under the stage name Zee Machine. The 4-song collection, which Bissell refers to as a “mini-concept record,” details his journey from the dark recesses of addiction to the hopeful world of recovery.

Bissell talked to Billboard about writing his EP before and after recovery, normalizing queer romance and why he decided to sample RuPaul on his EP.

Congrats on the EP! I love that you're mixing a couple different styles, like pop, R&B, ballads, etc. What made you want to do that?

I think it's honestly because this EP took, from start to finish, from when I wrote the first song to when I finally finished it, there was like a 3 year gap in between. I just had all of these different influences come to me at different times in my life. Like, with "Running on Empty," I think I started out writing that being like, "I want to write a song like 'XO' by Beyoncé, but one-up it." And then I think, like, for "If You Were My Boyfriend" I was like, "I want to write a song like D'Angelo, but make it sound a little more futuristic." And then, the title track, I was like, "You know what, I'm really digging The 1975 right now," but I wanted to put a little shot of adrenaline into each of them, stylistically. So it really comes from the fact that it was made over a very long period of time, and I had a crap-load of influences fighting for attention in a way.

You've said on Twitter that this album came after you beat a drug addiction. Can you tell me a little bit about what the story is there?

Yeah absolutely. It seems to be inevitable that it would find its way into the music, and to not talk about it would be disingenuous. So I actually lived out in New York for about a year when I first started trying to attempt to write this EP. This was back in 2014. I was in a really dark place and I bit off more than I could chew, so I moved out to San Francisco where my family was gonna help me get back on my feet. I just found the wrong people at the wrong time. I spent most of 2015 in a really, really dark place. At first I was drinking a lot, and then once I got to San Francisco, I did find that I was depressed, and I got really into meth. It was an escape that was unlike anything else. At first I felt like, "This is what I need to inspire me," because I had a really hard time writing from a happy place. But in the end, it kind of took away everything I thought it was giving me. I'm glad that I caught it when I did, because there are a lot of people, especially in the queer community, that are not that lucky.

The funny thing is, I actually recorded "Running on Empty," which is kind of about recovery, while I was in the middle of my spiral, and then the other three songs, which are all kind of about the darker place, I actually wrote after the fact, once I started to recover and whatnot. I think almost unintentionally, from start to finish, it kind of felt like a mini-concept record in the sense that it starts out with documenting being shamelessly in love with this dark side of things, and then in the middle, you have the turmoil that comes with that, and then the last song is sort of an acceptance of recovery, and picking yourself back up so you can learn from all of this.

Something I connected with in “If You Were My Boyfriend” was how romantic it feels, specifically for queer men. Do you find that kind of queer romance in music to be lacking?

Oh god yeah. Absolutely. I was really just using pronouns the way that straight people use pronouns, without trying to be gratuitous about it. I think the more people just sort of do it nonchalantly, the more we can just get the fuck over it. It won't be something where we all go "Ooh, did you hear that, he said 'he!'"

But it's also funny that you think it's very romantic, because when I wrote this, it was almost kind of tongue-in-cheek, assuming the role of the asshole that you are not rooting for [laughs]. Yeah, I mean, obviously music is open to be interpreted however you want it to, and I'm really glad that you connected to it that way. I really wrote that from a place of the really unhealthy relationship habits I have, where I'm delusionally compartmentalizing all of the dishonesty that I've had in past relationships. And that's something I see in a lot of gay relationships these days, because we're really not taught how to be healthy with them from the get-go. So that's sort of where that one came from.

I'm gonna have to go listen to that one with a new lens now! I noticed on the song "Brainchemistry" that you sampled RuPaul's 1993 Arsenio Hall interview, where Ru says "The pendulum swung so far to the right, that it's gonna come crashing back to the left." Why did you choose to include that?

You are the first person to tell me you caught that, yes! Originally, I wanted to do a mixing up of a bunch of different people, like words of icons throughout the ages. I wanted to use a clip of Harvey Milk's "Give Them Hope" speech, but I couldn't find a good recording of it, because they all had music underneath him. So I ended up finding this RuPaul interview, and that was in, like, '93! What he was saying was unheard of back then! So I wrote and recorded that song around February 2017, which was just a month after the inauguration. We were just in the full swing of the backlash. We were lulled into this false sense of security, or at least I personally was, for the last eight years. I just did not see this happening. And so I was like, "Wow, even 24 years later, it's relevant as hell." I just feel like everything is a cycle.

Ok, this is gonna be a weird reference, so strap in. On the new Will & Grace, there was an episode where Ben Platt was the guest star, and he played this young gay that Will was dating. And the whole joke that they're emphasizing is how they are from completely different generations of queer men, where Will had to struggle with his coming out, and Ben Platt's character was like, "Oh yeah, my mom and dad both threw me a coming out party on the same day, it was super hard." In the least condescending way possible, it's just a reminder that we could lose this all. We've made some great progress, there's a lot more we need to fight for, and so let's not forget everything that's happened.

So now that Brainchemistry is out, what's next for you?

There's a bunch of things that I have my eye on right now. At the moment I'm still local to San Francisco, but I'm planning to move to L.A. in the next couple of months. I did the New York thing, I did the music school thing in Boston, so this just seems like the next logical step now that I have something concrete out in the universe. Actually, when I was in New York last week, I was recording a couple of new tracks with my producer. I found a really good narrative by chance in a lot of ways for this EP, and I'm really happy with how everything flowed. So right now, I'm just working on finding more things to say.


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