Harmony Grit

Harmony Grit by Lorraine Ali
MTV Online
October 1996 “We are not the female Beastie Boys,” says an emphatic Kate Schellenbach, drummer of New York’s hip-hop/alternative rock hybrid Luscious Jackson. Lolling in the cluttered offices of the band’s Manhattan publicity firm, going over artwork, video ideas, and other plans for the release of their upcoming record, neither her or vocalist and bass player Jill Cunniff look particularly fly or dope. Schellenbach’s straight brown hair is in a no-frills ponytail and she wears a basic jeans and T-shirt ensemble, while Cunniff lounges in a vintage blouse and skirt. “We were the first band on their label, Grand Royal, so people just thought we were gonna be the female Beastie Boys. Obviously there were similarities–we grew up in New York City, had similar influences, and put sampling and instrumentation together–but that’s it,” she pauses. “I guess the amount of attention we initially got because of that was worth having to be defensive about it.” The Beastie association did help peak curiosity around the band’s 1992 debut EP, In Search Of Manny. But Luscious Jackson weren’t fighting for their right to party or rapping like an ’80s incarnation of Jerry Lewis. Instead, the quartet delivered a smoother, cooler sound than that of their in-your-face mentors. Luscious took the noisy vibe of New York City and mixed it with hip-hop beats and mega samples, then topped it all with cool, melt-away harmonies and silky raps. Three albums later, Luscious Jackson’s newest release, Fever In Fever Out, heads in an even more ambient and zen-like direction, pulling farther away from the trendy sounds of commercial hip-hop and exploring more melodic terrain. Its overall feel is ambient, spiritual in spots, and the songs themselves more liquid smooth, proving Luscious now feels ultra-comfortable in its non-Beastie skin. Beastie relations aside, Luscious Jackson have never been an easy band to categorize. The non-orthodox quartet, which also includes guitarist and singer Gabrielle Glaser and keyboardist Vivian Trimble, was a curiosity from the start: four white girls who rapped and sampled. There really wasn’t any other group to compare them to. It was a fresh approach–not really hip-hop, not really indie rock–that made them the new promise band, one that crossed musical boundaries and ignored gender politics. Fans hailed Luscious Jackson’s sound as the future of music, while detractors considered them a mere novelty. Regardless, there proved tons of potential under the band’s amateurish approach, and several catchy songs under each record’s scratchy production. Fever In Fever Out hones that potential, and pulls the band’s sound into a more refined and less scattered direction. “We just tried to make an album that was more cohesive, more stuck together,” says Schellenbach. Cunniff nods in agreement. Under the bright office light, the singer’s skin looks extra porcelain, while her bright red lipstick accents the skunk streaks in her dark hair. The two bandmates, who are childhood friends, seem to communicate without even talking to each other. It’s the kind of connection that only comes with years of camaraderie. “We were in a modern dance class together when we were toddlers,” laughs Schellenbach. “I have the incriminating evidence on film.” Fever In Fever Out flows as naturally as Schellenbach and Cunniff’s conversation. Along with Glaser, who they’ve known since high school, and Trimble, the band’s ease with one another translates on album to relaxed and nonchalant songs. This record has even more of a seamless feel than Luscious’ last, 1994’s Natural Ingredients, putting less emphasis on bassy beat and samples, and more on creamy vocal harmonies and hypnotic melodies. Cunniff and Glaser croon lines ’bout relationships like “I would love to be better/I would love to be free/I would love to be perfect when you look at me,” up against mantra-like tunes, lazy beats and subtle, blend-in samples. “There’s still elements of the same sound, but now there’s a lot more live playing as opposed to sampling,” says Cunniff. “There’s more songs written from the ground up with a guitar as opposed to finding a groove and putting lyrics on it. I think it has a more organic feel. It’s more of a trip. It’s more moody. I keep saying it sounds more mystical, and I know someone’s gonna hit me for it. But I can’t think of a better word than that. I even looked it up in the dictionary. ” “I think sonically it’s lusher, richer,” adds Schellenbach. “We had better equipment to work with, and everyone’s musicianship got a lot better. It captured everyone’s best playing. Now, the vocals immediately jump out at you.” The band, who named themselves after a ’60s-era basketball player for the Philadelphia 76ers, recorded most of this album’s material inside a small rehearsal area in Schellenbach’s apartment. The loft, on New York’s bustling 14th street, and the clamor of Manhattan, proved inspirational for the band. “We always used to say it was 14th street that influenced us,” says Schellenbach. “All the sounds, all the things you hear coming through the window or when you’re walking down the street. You can’t make music without them leaking in.” The approach was an evolution of the way they recorded their debut full-length, Schellenbach explains: “We used a lot of things on the first record that were just, like, us walking through Central Park recording people.” It’s been two years since Luscious Jackson released Natural Ingredients, and in-between, the band toured non-stop and even messed around with a few side projects. Cunniff and Trimble put out the EP, Klassics With a K, under the name Kostars, a band that includes Breeders bassist Josephine Wiggs. Schellenbach also did a “really silly single” with Wiggs called “Ladies for Lunch,” where they covered songs by seminal noise gods Sonic Youth and the Pixies. Luscious Jackson did some recording together, too. The band contributed the song “Strong Man” to the film soundtrack for Girlstown, “Here” to the Clueless soundtrack, as well as tracks for the benefit albums Ain’t Nuthin’ But a She Thing and Rock For Choice’s 1996 Christmas album. With all this experience behind them, Luscious now had the ability to open up its underground sound and make it a little more polished and accessible. Where the band’s past releases were scratchy and almost lo-fi in their production, this time around the band chose infamous producer Daniel Lanois–of U2, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan fame. “We were in a quandary,” says Schellenbach. “We wanted to work with somebody who knew live sound, had worked with samples and had played music themselves. We wanted a music fan, not just a technical guy. The other thing is, we didn’t want to work with a producer who made every artist they worked with sound alike. Most of the ones who qualified were dead or out of commission.” After hooking up with Lanois through their record company, Luscious recorded a few tracks in a real studio in New Orleans. The band stayed and recorded some more inside an old mansion in the city’s historical French Quarter. “We set up stuff in a ballroom, but it was so big, we decided to break things down and set them up at the bottom of the stairs,” says Cunniff. “We realized that we actually worked better when we’re closer together, packed in like sardines. It’s like when you’re used to working on a tiny, cluttered desk, and someone cleans it up.” The band also brought its microphones outside and recorded the street sounds of New Orleans. “We recorded a St. Patrick’s day Parade in New Orleans that went by our house,” says Cunniff. “It had this really eerie sound, so we put that in-between songs.” Even though Fever pushes Luscious Jackson’s sound in a less urban direction, the band still feel a heavy connection to the world of hip-hop and rap. “As far as we’re concerned, there’s a hip-hop influence in the way we use the samples,” says Schellenbach. “Stylistically, the way we put together the songs, it’s hip-hop. We were really into early hip-hop, and influenced by De La Soul, Public Enemy and Sugar Hill Gang. It was really exciting. I mean, growing up in New York and all.” Cunniff, Schellenbach and Glaser all were raised in New York’s East and West Villages. Schellenbach, who sang in the church choir with her mom and sister, met Cunniff in nursery school. They collectively listened to their parents’ classical music, Joni Mitchell, and Beatles records around the house before discovering AM pop, then punk rock, at the age of thirteen. They both started their own fanzines, Schellenbach’s Cheap Garbage for Snotty Teens and Cunniff’s The Decline of Art, around the same time they met Glaser. The three did a lot of loitering on the trendy strip of St. Marks Place, listened to bands like the Bad Brains and the Clash, and snuck into local clubs like CBGBs, Dancteria and Pier Three. “There were kids playing music that were my age,” recalls Schellenbach. “I never had music lessons and we certainly weren’t professionals, so I thought, ‘Hey, I could do it, too.'” By age 15, Schellenbach began playing drums for the hardcore punk incarnation of the Beastie Boys–some of her work can be heard on the Beastie’s hardcore compilation, Some Old Bullshit. But, according to Schellenbach, the band soon told her that their DJ, Rick Rubin (future founder of Def American, now American Records), didn’t like women rapping, so the Beasties had to make a choice between Rubin or her. After Schellenbach left, there would be a rift between her and the band for the next few years. “I was mad, but I really repressed it,” she once told Details magazine. In that same article she said, “It wasn’t so much that Rick Rubin took the group away, it was his influence on their personalities. They used to be really cool guys and suddenly they were these pimply, drunk assholes throwing beer cans around with go-go girls and stuff.” Cunniff and Glaser also played in a couple of bands, but the three friends didn’t decide to unify their efforts until after college. When Cunniff returned from Berkeley University in Northern California, her and Glaser, who had attended New York’s School of Visual Arts, began messing around with a sampler and beats. They eventually pulled in Schellenbach (who had just graduated from Hunter with an Arts degree), and Cunniff’s co-worker, Vivian Trimble, joined on keyboards in 1992. “It was all samples,” says Cunniff. “We only had two live songs on the first record. The emphasis was on sampled music. That was our specialty.” They gave a demo tape to Beastie Mike D for fun, having no idea that the entrepreneurial Mr. Diamond was thinking of starting up his own label. A year later, Luscious Jackson’s EP, In Search of Manny, would be Grand Royal’s first release. Its cover, a vintage photo of a skeezy ’70s character holding a beer, was intriguing enough, but it was the blend of beat and harmonies inside that grabbed the attention of critics and underground music fans. The band released their debut full-length, Natural Ingredients, the same year they played on Lollapalooza’s second stage. They would continue touring through much of ’96. “After touring for a year and a half, we really got into playing,” says Schellenbach. “But the first round of shows we did were really hard. We didn’t bring a sampler and tried to play all our stuff live, so it came off like obscure versions of our songs. Finally, we brought a sampler in, then we added a live DJ, and it really pulled together.” Pulling it together onstage at L.A.’s Luna Lounge a year ago, Luscious Jackson played a casual set, as if they were still in Schellenbach’s apartment messing around. They traded off remarks, bantered with the audience, and played organic versions of their songs. The sold-out show was packed with industry insiders hungry for a glimpse of the band’s future output, illuminating just how much hype was surrounding the band at the time. It was that tag of “next big thing,” and the dichotomy the band felt between their DIY aesthetics and the pressure of living on a big, corporate label, that caused Luscious to feel some added pressure when they set out to record Fever. “I think I put as much pressure on myself as the record company did,” says Cunniff. “It comes to the point where you want to have a successful career. It’s very hard to survive if you’re making middle-level records on a major label. The record company loses interest in you. That kind of pressure’s bad if you’re not in sync with it.” Referring to the type of indie band who is averse to mainstream acceptance, she explains, “If you don’t want to have a successful record, if you want to stay cult-size, than that kind of pressure is really damaging.” “A lot of musicians are going back to independent labels,” says Schellenbach. “They’re like ‘Well, we don’t have that sound.’ We’ll see what happens with us, where we end up after this album. We hope it gets played on the radio.” A mix-and-match sound like Luscious Jackson’s may have been hard for bigger audiences to digest a few years ago–it was just a little too weird. Fans used to gobbling up the derivative dirge of Nirvana wanna-be bands weren’t used to appreciating the fusion of hip-hop and rock. That’s all changing now. Recent Beastie albums and avante-garde artists like Beck have broken the ice, and more people are now seeking out this alternative to riotous reverb. “We’re like Beck in that way,” says Schellenbach. “With our last record, some people were confused and complaining that it was too scattered. They didn’t know where to categorize it in the store, or what radio station to play us on. But basically, we were just using all our influences in one place. Now, I think the reaction will be different.” Luscious Jackson often refer to themselves as an art band. Basically, it’s because the group has no one foot planted in any particular camp. But when pressed, they feel their style is most rooted in early ’80s new wave. “I think we really connect to those bands, both English and American,” says Cunniff, “when they were mixing punk with other influences, like reggae–like the Raincoats, Bush Tetras, the Clash, Wire, Blondie and some art bands.” Now the band’s main goal is to connect with a wide range of listeners through the varied elements and moods of their music. “I think people’s musical tastes are a lot less segregated than big business wants you to believe,” says Schellenbach. “It’s not like if you listen to country, you only listen to country, or if you listen to hip-hop, it is only to hip-hop. I think the average person’s record collection is fairly diverse. That’s how our record collections are. That’s our tastes and, that’s what comes out in our music.” Schellenbach refers to one of a few vocal guests on the record. “We hope somebody would listen to our music and go ‘Oh, Emmylou Harris, who’s that?’ We just want to open up horizons a little more. That’s all.” Reprinted without permission, if you want something taken down, just ask and i’ll oblige

©1996-2007 The Luscious Jackson Source

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