EAST VILLAGE ALCHEMISTS WITH AMBROSIA IN THEIR TUBES, LUSCIOUS JACKSON PLAY A G-SPOT-HITTING, HIP-HOP ROCK WITH FUNK SYNCOPATIONS AND A GALVANIC INDIE VIBE
by Graham Fuller
The dream child of lead singer-bassist Jill Cunniff and singer-guitarist Gabby Glaser, Luscious recorded the tinny and terrific In Search of Manny for Beastie Boy Mike D.’s Grand Royal label in 1993 with powerhouse ex-Beasties drummer Kate Schellenbach and keyboardist Vivian Trimble coming in on two live cuts and staying for the ride. Though Cunniff’s lyrics proffer a tart and ominous self-determination, her voice is a gorgeous embrace–as can be heard on “Deep Shag” and other unpolished pearls on next month’s Natural Ingredients (Grand Royal/Capitol). The band were rehearsing extended instrumentals for Easy, a discocentric dance piece choreographed by Trimble for the Dance Theatre Workshop, when I met them in pairs in April. “The ladies on top is so delicious,” a male voice chimed in on Manny, and I’m not about to argue with that.
KATE AND VIVIAN GRAHAM FULLER: What’s Luscious Jackson’s prehistory?
KATE SCHELLENBACH: Jill, Gabby, and I all grew up in the East Village in New York. We were like a pack of kids roaming around. We started seeing bands like Bad Brains when we were thirteen, at places like Pier Three, Mudd Club, Danceteria. Later I played drums for the Beastie Boys. Jill and Gabby moved away, years went by, and when they came back into town I started jamming with Jill. Then Vivian came into the picture.
VIVIAN TRIMBLE: I had been part of the performance scene in New York for years with people like John Kelly. My mother’s a concert pianist and my father’s an opera singer. I’d never pursued any of that seriously, but I started writing music for myself and for other directors and choreographers. I met Jill when we were teaching adult education together. The first time we all played together was at the Building, opening for the Beastie Boys. It was a big mess, but fun.
GF: You seem to have come out of nowhere–or maybe everywhere is more accurate.
VT: When we complain about touring, people say, “You’ve completely bypassed the first two or three steps of the ladder by not sleeping on people’s floors and driving your own car, and they say it with a slightly accusing tone! Jill and Gabby have complete creative control of producing and mixing everything with [engineer] Tony Mangurian, and to get to that point a lot o artists have to suffer through labels thrusting producers at them. Maybe part of it is not knowing the rules or that we’re older women and more self-assured. It’s about making the rules that will satisfy you.
GF: How do the songs evolve in terms of the way each of you play your own instruments?
VT: Usually, Jill and Gabby have a riff and we’ll write our own parts.
KS: You jam on it until something sounds good and you get a structure and see how it flows. But then there’s also the writing in the studio, where Jill and Gabby will go in and sample those or vivian’s keyboard riffs. We try to keep everything playable live, because that makes a more exciting show. The drums might not sound exactly like they do on the record, but who can tell anyway when you’re playing in a shitty club?!
GF: Vivian’s keyboards seem to drip over the songs.
VT: Drip? That’s good. I like that.
KS: She’s the grated cheese that’s sprinkled on the pizza.
VT: On Natural Ingredients, I do a lot more rhythmic stuff that feeds into the actual structure of the songs, as opposed to tripping lightly along the top–and then there’s some of that, too. The whole record’s pretty mellow, actually.
GF: “Pele Merengue” is like a carnival song–and just in time for the World Cup.
VT: Will anybody in this country even notice the World Cup? That’s what I want to know> How the hell that song got written, I don’t know. it was just one of those pulled-out-of-the-air things.
KS: People groove on it. A lot of our instrumentals are made up of cliches that we rearrange. We have a library of music in our heads so we can pick something out and say, “O.K., let’s do that Procol Harum part.”
GF: How do your personalities complement each other?
VT: Gabby and I are Gemini and Sag, so we get along automatically. Jill and I have this thing about yoga and maintaining a certain kind of health in what could be an unhealthy industry. Kate and I share a certain professional, organized approach to things.
KS: Gabby and I like to hang out and drink beer.
VT: Gabby and I watched the Olympic ice skating championships together.
KS: Gabby and I’d watch the Breeders when we toured with them.
VT: [to KS] You and Gabby are a good, rah-rah audience, almost moshers. Jill and I are usually backstage somewhere–
KS: –lighting incense.
VT: And trying to maintain a sense of calm.
GF: Are you in Luscious Jackson for the joy of doing the music?
VT: Hmmm, we might all have our own reasons.
KS: I love playing drums and I love playing loud. As long as I don’t have to eat truck-stop food every day, then I’m going to be O.K.
JILL AND GABBY GF: You two have known each other for years, right?
JILL CUNNIFF: We were pals on the Lower East Side, city kids hanging out.
GABBY GLASER: We met late at night in all these great places, saw great bands in punk, clubs and formulated a friendship. We spent a lot of time on St. Mark’s Place, embarrassingly enough, sitting on stoops, harassing people, walking really slowly down the block so that it would stop all the traffic, just making a nuisance of ourselves, dressing up in silly clothes.
GF: Did you have musical leanings at that time?
GG: I bought a guitar when I was thirteen and played it for maybe six months and got really into it, and then I got bored and started going to clubs again. Then when Jill and I were roommates in San Francisco, she had two guitars and we jammed a few times.
JC: I taught myself to play guitar when I was about eighteen and spent years in my room writing songs. I had tapes and tapes of songs, and I tried to form bands but never really had the confidence to do it. I have this ego trip about the music sounding really good. If you’re in a band with a bunch of people, and it’s not coming out exactly the way you want because it’s a democracy-
GG: -it can get really diluted.
JC: Gabby and I had a four-girl rap group, and it wasn’t working. So we broke that up and got really frustrated.
GG: Then we realized we have a very similar point of view in how we want to make our music and said, “All right, why don’t we get back into it and make sure we have total control?”
JC: We went to Tony Mangurian, who’d produced our previous projects, and said, “We’ll pay you if we get to be the bosses.” So we paid him by the hour and did the whole Manny demo tape that way and learned how to produce. Being able to write songs on our instruments and use samples as well was really exciting. It wasn’t like being in a guitar band, which always sounds the same to me. I wanted to do something different.
GG: Wee wanted to play certain riffs we’d written years ago and get them all together. Some of the songs we write are serious, and some are just about having a good time. It’s pretty organic, not conceptualized. You pick up things you like and collage them. That’s our philosophy.
GF: A lot of the lyrics-and not just the raps-have a hip-hop inflection. Where does that come from?
JC: When you go to public school and hang out with everybody, you become like a human microcosm. It’s not a conscious thing. It comes from listening to a lot of rap and jazz and funk and soul and punk records. Art is on of those things that absorbs itself and spreads around.
GF: Your music’s not easily definable.
JC: I can’t describe it either. I have a real hard time. We have this lightweight heavy thing going. [laughs]
GF: Was it a conscious decision to form an all-woman band?
GG: We really weren’t sure how we were going to put the band together. We just happened to run into people who would fit in, and that was Kate and Vivian. Now we’re adding a male DJ and, hopefully, a percussion player who’ll probably be male. It’s a weird thing when you’re all women. It shouldn’t be weird, but it is.
GF: What do you mean?
GG: It’s like a-
JC: -noveltyish feeling.
GG: You don’t feel like it when you’re up there, but when you start reading the press, it’s “Whoa, Luscious Jackson is four white girls.”
JC: And that’s totally not what it’s about.
GG: We’d rather it not be a sex or race issue. We’d rather worry about the music.
GF: Do you think you’re political
JC: The lyrics are full of my personal take on the world, which is very political, I think. What do you mean by political, though?
GF: Feminist, but not necessarily ideological.
JC: It’s all there, but it’s not in your face. Basically, if you’re a woman and you’re starting your opinion and you’re not bowing down to what people expect, then you’r a feminist.
GF: Is Natural Ingredients a continuation of Manny?
GG: It has more live songs. The content to me seems a little more serious, deeper in a way, because it’s one person’s-Jill’s-point of view in her lyrics, whereas Manny was like both our ideas about men or whatever.
JC: These songs are more like the ones I wrote in my room. The lyrics are more personal.
GF: The production is still quite raw. Are you trying to avoid becoming too polished?
GG: Yes. That really slicked-up sound really turns us off.
GF: Have you had people try and package you?
JC: We had people interested in managing us a long time ago who had ideas here and there, but of course, we weren’t interested. Nope. Sorry.
GG: Mike D. at Grand Royal is also an artist and he’s sensitive about that whole trip. He’s also sensitive about feminism. I wouldn’t have a guy working for me that had dirty pictures on his wall, and I don’t think he would either.
GG: It seems like a lot of men now are really tiptoeing around us because we’re women, and they’re really freaked out because they think we’re going to jump on them and choke them. We don’t give a shit. You’re just got to be yourself.
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