Luscious Jackson: Fever Dreams
by Heidi MacDonald
It’s a rainy night in Manhattan, and the four members of Luscious Jackson have gathered in a downtown cafe. All have just returned from vacation, so the mood is loose.
Bass player Jill Cunniff writes most of the songs; she’s the one who brings out the Dayrunner to plan the roll-out for the band’s new album, Fever In Fever Out (Grand Royal). Guitarist Gabrielle Glaser tends to be the bluntest, but even when she realizes that the subject of one of her more pointed songs has entered the bar, she keeps her cool. Keyboardist Vivian Trimble has just jetted in from France, but even jet- lagged, he speech is sprinkled with words like ‘nonplused’ that you hardly ever get to hear said aloud. Drummer Kate Schellenbach speaks softly and thoughtfully on a range of subjects. The conversation is by turns insightful and goofy: all four of them have a keen eye for behavioral quirks.
“Most musicians aren’t rock stars, just rock schleps,” says Trimble. “Schlepping around the country over and over again.”
“Rock stars put a lot of time into making it look like they don’t schlep,” adds Glaser.
“They spend a lot of money on the schlepping process,” Trimble continues. “It’s three-star schlepping instead of one-star schlepping. The more famous you are, the more you get to sleep during the schlep process.”
“That’s it!” says Glaser. “You go to sleep, and they drag you around while you’re sleeping, and you wake up and do the gig.”
The group may not be rock stars yet, exactly, but the women of Luscious Jackson have made it their mark. They’re innovative musicians whose mix of samples, hip-hop and gut-level lyrics have captured a vivid part of the zeitgeist. As one of the first bands on Grand Royal Records, they’ve also made significant contributions to a label whose distinctive sound is getting more and more influential.
Their share of this vibe is very, very New York. As the story goes, Schellenbach was the first drummer in a teenaged punk band knows as the Beastie Boys. Producer Rick Rubin didn’t think a girl had a place in the new, macho world of white-boy rap, but Schellenbach wasn’t really into rapping, either, so she moved on. She later hooked up with Cunniff and Glaser in the New York music scene of the ’80s, hanging out at shows, listening to punk and hip-hop, and putting out fanzines.
“I grew up anti-rock star,” says Schellenbach. “I hated Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones because they were untouchable. Now I appreciate them- the absurdity of Aerosmith is fascinating. But when I was an alienated 13-year-old, I couldn’t identify with Mick Jagger. But I could identify with Poly Styrene, who had braces on her teeth. Once I found a social group, I found a reason to hang around the record store, go out and see bands. We were all definitely into the scene.”
The three were eventually joined by Trimble, who brought keyboards and a background in dance to the gritty street sounds that were to become Luscious Jackson. Their first EP, In Search Of Manny, was the first non-Beastie release on Grand Royal, and introduced a sample-heavy, groove-driven vibe. After the release of the full-length Natural Ingredients, Luscious Jackson paid their schlepping dues, touring America with Lollapalooza, Europe with the Beasties, and arenas with R.E.M.
Growing up in New York seems to have a lot to do with the band’s current sound. Says Schellenbach, “We were very lucky to have a vast library of sounds and bands to reference. We came up at a time when many great bands were playing. We saw a lot of great shows as teenagers. We got to hear a lot of music you probably wouldn’t hear if you were growing up in the suburbs. You get into a cab and there’s a Haitian cabdriver, playing Haitian French music, or you hear Indian music as you walk down the street. It’s unique, and it does enter into our songwriting process.”
Fever In Fever Out leaves behind a bit of urban swagger, and gains a more layered, mystical sounds. While there aren’t any instant .sig files like “I’m a goddess, not your mother” (from Natural Ingredients’ “Energy Sucker”), new songs like “Why Do I Lie?” and “Don’t Look Back” paint a subtler and more introspective picture.
While part of the change is natural growth, it’s also due to the fact that Luscious Jackson has hooked up with a new producer, or rather a Producer: Daniel Lanois. Could four girls from the big city find happiness with the U2 and Peter Gabriel producer, a man whose name conjures an image of sage and a Joshua tree?
“It was a good collaboration, because it didn’t become Daniel’s project,” explains Cunniff. “He helped us with our live sounds, but we still were very involved in production.”
“His name didn’t mean anything to us,” confesses Schellenbach. “We didn’t know who he was when his name came up. But when they started mentioning which albums he’d done and we were like, ‘Oh, wow.’ And when we met Dan, we really hit it off.”
Predictably, Lanois’ contributions gave the album and emotional, mysterious sound. Most of it was recorded live, giving the vocals a much more direct, almost confessional, edge. He brought along a few pals and gals to help out, too: Emmylou Harris sings backup on “Soothe Yourself” and “Why Do I Lie?” He also got the New Yorkers out of the city and into a studio in New Orleans for a few weeks.
“The studio was beautiful,” says Schellenbach. “Most studios are very oppressive. You’re cut off from the outside world, you never know what day it is, what season it is, you’re surrounded by dark carpeting and wood panels. Dan had a place in a mansion on the edge of the French Quarter. Each room was a different theme: the mermaid room, the Superman room, the Mexican room. You could set up your equipment at the bottom of the stairs or in a ballroom.”
“We hardly left the house, because there was a Jacuzzi, and all the rooms had balconies” says Glaser. “But I did go for a lot of walks.”
The city also cast its spell on the songwriting. Cunniff finished writing “Mood Swing” in this moodiest of cities. “It’s kind of a smoky song. And the album title Fever In Fever Out comes from ‘Mood Swing,’ too. Even though we only spent two weeks there, New Orleans infuses the record. There was something about the romance of it, the ghostliness and the age.”
If anything, Fever In Fever Out refutes the idea of Luscious Jackson as primarily a quasi-hip-hop band. Glaser doesn’t mince words when asked about it. “We like too many different kinds of music to be labeled as one kind of band,” she says. What about trip-hop, which could conceivably be applied to the album’s slower, dreamier pieces? “I don’t even know what that is,” she scoffs.
The amount of live playing on the album is also a breakthrough. “I think on the last record we used samples as instruments, and on this one we use our instruments as samplers, if that makes any sense,” says Cunniff.
The talk turns to a fan club that the bands is putting together. The club will have a ‘zine, just like in the old days. Schellenbach is clearly in her element. “We’re going to make special fan-club-only t- shirts, and an exclusive CD. I interview the Lunachicks, and Jill and Viv did interviews too.”
“I want to do a crossword puzzle!”Glaser shouts.
Clearly, the Luscious Jackson story is a happy one, at least so far. What’s the biggest fantasy the band aspires to?
“We could play on the moon!” Schellenbach suggests.
“Hm. That’s a lot of schlepping,” observes Trimble.
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