In Dazed's 20th-anniversary issue, we interviewed the renegade musician about breaking down barriers in the industry and maintaining longevity whilst remaining provocative
When Merrill Beth Nisker burst onto the stage as Peaches at the turn of the new millennium, pubic hair curling out of her lurid pink hot pants and encouraging everyone to “fuck the pain away”, it was nothing short of a revelation. Her stripped-back electronic beats were seedier than a Soho sex shop and her live show rocked harder than any cookie-cutter beefcake with a guitar – this was party music for the outsider generation.
It wasn’t just shock factor sex appeal that Peaches exuded like sweat, she addressed gender politics – wiggling her lady parts at the boundaries between cocks and crotches – and, most importantly, she was doing it by herself. Her self-produced album 'Teaches Of Peaches' defined the short-lived electroclash phenomenon, but Peaches’s legacy can be seen in every so-called controversial pop diva since, albeit with an added layer of commercial high gloss. Five albums later, Peaches has strapped on an even bigger prosthetic penis for an opera about herself and produced a one-woman show where she sings the entire script of 'Jesus Christ Superstar'. At 43, she’s still challenging her audiences, as well as herself, and keeping her approach deliciously DIY.
You are DJing a lot more at the moment. What does it allow you to explore that your live shows don’t? Peaches: It allows me to perform live closer to the way that I used to – I can just show up with some music and do whatever I like. At the beginning, the point was that my shows could go anywhere and be anything, and there was no one but me involved. When I started in Toronto, it wasn’t a classically beautiful person in a classically sexy outfit on stage – it was me, singing directly about a lot of things, with no band. It was strange for people. But when I moved to Berlin [in the early 2000s], the indie scene was more electronic and what I was doing inspired a lot of people.
What foundations do you feel that you’ve laid for today’s musicians and artists? Peaches: I think I’ve just been an inspiration to put yourself forward and say directly what you want to say, breaking down the myth of how difficult it is to express yourself or to let your creative side roll. I’m not the first person to speak directly about sex, but at that time it was a new idea again, as it was to mix guitars and minimal electronics, like Kraftwerk-meets-Iggy Pop. I wanted to break down barriers; I wanted guys and girls of all kinds to sing along with things like ‘sucking on my titties’ or ‘shake your dick’. When I see a straight guy singing that, it’s a big deal. People ask me why I don’t win Grammys and why I’m not huge, but that’s not the point. You have women running the pop scene and saying funny or sexual things, but it’s not really the same – it’s about doing it yourself; it’s still that DIY thing.
D&C: You have been breaking down barriers in the theatre world too, with last year’s 'Peaches Christ Superstar' and 'Peaches Does Herself' shows. Where did those ideas come from?Peaches: Christ Superstar was just me performing the whole of Jesus Christ Superstar as a one-woman show, which is a ridiculous notion. On my ten-year anniversary [last year] I wanted to give myself some credit – I have quite a large vocal range and I can command an audience with my voice. Andrew Lloyd Webber was not into it at first but in the end, he said that I could go ahead. Gonzales played the piano in place of the full orchestra, which was a ridiculous notion too, and I sang the whole thing. It was quite a challenge – my audience isn’t used to me singing a whole musical, let alone me singing a musical about Jesus. I wasn’t doing it in a tongue-in-cheek way, either – I love the music and I think the musical has fantastic storytelling in it.
And after that came Peaches Does Herself? Peaches: Yeah, I was like, ‘So here I am doing this minimalist production of a musical – now I’m going to take my history, pick 28 songs and create a fantastical history for myself, addressing misconceptions of who I am and how people see me.’ It was far from a minimalist musical – it had a cast and crew of 40, and I directed it, starred in it and wrote it. But I like to call it an Electro-Rock Opera because there is actually no talking in it – it’s all performed through my music.
What themes did it approach? Peaches: There are things that I am concerned with and that I wrote music about, and there are things that people interpreted from the music. It fascinates me how people took something that I was just saying directly like ‘I wanna pop’ or ‘I want it to be minimal music’ and people saw it as a feminist statement. And others saw it as complete porno. Another issue is age and beauty. It’s not like I was 19 and doing this – I started [my music career] when I was 33. So I invited Sandy Kane – she’s a 70-year-old stripper and comedian from New York – to play my fairy godmother. Then there’s Danni, of course, the magnificent, well-hung, beautiful-breasted young trannie, who played my love interest. In some circles I’m sure people wish Peaches was that – that ultimate fourth-sex person. I’d love to do it again but it’s quite an expensive project – it’s got a huge pussy bed and a huge operating table – but we filmed it every night and we’re turning it into a movie version, which should be out this month, if it works.
Do you think that the attitude to ageing has changed much in music and art? Peaches:I mean, look at Grace Jones. What a fantastic performer, what an incredible body – you can’t screw with that. Nobody can do what she does in heels, and she’s over 60. I met her at Lovebox last year and she was wheeling me around in my wheelchair. We had a blast. I hugged her. I cried. It was a moment.
Where do you think electronic music is at the moment? Peaches:It’s funny because if somebody told me I’d be DJing hard techno music ten years ago, I’d have been saying, ‘Are you nuts?’ But, to me, some of those sounds are so terrifying and awesome, and that’s what you want in a club. But you have to be careful because technology moves so fast that if somebody makes a cool new sound, people can duplicate it and do it too. If you’re inspired by it, watch that you don’t make the exact same thing – move on from it instead. Then again, I think there are a lot of women lacking there, which is why it’s important that I’m DJing. I looked at those 100 Top DJs polls and it’s always the same guys and they’ve been doing it forever.
What does it take to have longevity at a time when everyone is so obsessed with what’s new? Peaches:I think you just have to go along and keep doing whatever it is that you’re doing, and realise that there are times when it’s going to click with people and there are times when, even if you think it’s your best work, it’s just not going to. And that can’t discourage you. It doesn’t mean that somewhere along the line later on someone isn’t going to be like, ‘Actually, that was amazing!’ I was thinking recently about Kate Bush – you go to any party in the last two years and you’d always hear ‘Running Up That Hill’. That album The Dreaming is basically the music of now – it’s so Planningtorock; it’s so witch-house. It’s funny how things come back around, and how they make sense again and you don’t know why.
Will your music stand the same test of time too? Peaches: I’m sure certain songs will. ‘Boys Wanna Be Her’ and ‘Fuck The Pain Away’ have already become anthems – it’s amazing.
Will there be a new album any time soon? Peaches: Well, I can’t say I have an incredible new album ready or anything. I’m excited about brutal techno and the voice and I’d really like to put the two together. But I’m having fun DJing and hoping to get inspired. What’s really exciting for me, though, is how my history has evolved – when
I first started, I was so hellbent on people thinking of me as a musician, and now it’s the furthest thing from my mind. I want them to just see me as everything, as performance art or, dare I say it, even comedy or parody or satire – but also as complete energy. I couldn’t care less if I headlined Glastonbury. But if Glastonbury wanted Peaches Does Herself, then that would be a bigger feat.
Kate Hutchinson is the clubbing editor at Time Out London and programmes London Fields Radio