Interview with Luscious Jackson’s Kate Schellenbach

Interview with Luscious Jackson’s Kate Schellenbach by Marlene Goldman
Special to SF Gate
July 14, 1999

Manhattan-bred Luscious Jackson skins master Kate Schellenbach was weaned on early-’80s New York punk, and started out kicking up a rattle in 1981 for the then-hardcore Beastie Boys. She was one of the few female drummers in the genre, frequenting punk clubs like CBGB, Max’s Kansas City and the Mudd Club, and running the fanzine Cheap Garbage for Snotty Teens.

The punk venues were also where Schellenbach met Luscious Jackson guitarist/vocalist Jill Cunniff and bassist/vocalist Gabby Glaser — an unlikely birthplace for the band’s funk-pop blend. But Schellenbach, whose Manhattan home doubles as a music studio, has even taken to drumming for the folksy Indigo Girls, a far cry from her Beastie-girl days.

Luscious Jackson itself has undergone a bit of a transition since its 1991 inception, losing keyboardist Vivian Trimble, and adding a slick gloss to the new album, “Electric Honey.”

Schellenbach checked in from a cell phone at a truck stop between Vancouver and the Gorge in Washington state, en route down the West Coast to play the Lilith Fair at Shoreline Amphitheatre July 13-14.

SF Gate: Deborah Harry makes an appearance on your new CD, and I read you drummed for Blondie earlier this year for a surprise show in New York? How did that collaboration come about?

Kate Schellenbach: She’s been coming to see our shows since the early days, and I played at a Blondie tribute night in a once-a-month club in New York, Fragglerock. Deborah Harry and Chris Stein came to the show, and they saw me play, and they needed a drummer for a surprise show in New York; [Blondie drummer] Clem Burke wasn’t around. That’s when I got the call.

SF Gate: So, what was it like playing drums for Blondie?

KS: That was huge for me. It was one of the first bands I was ever aware of and followed. As a teenager I belonged to the fan club, had posters on my wall. Twenty years later, my dream comes true. Deborah Harry is a sweet, funny, generous, badass woman with an incredible voice.

SF Gate: Did playing that early ’80s music remind you of your teenage years?

KS: It definitely made me think of being a certain age like 12 or 13 in New York. I was becoming aware of Blondie and other bands at that time. Not that Blondie was that underground at that time, but it clued me in that there was a whole other music scene that wasn’t just about the radio or “American Bandstand.” Blondie was from the clubs — CBGB, Max’s Kansas City. It opened up a door and it became my social group — going to see bands who were my age. That’s how I met Jill and Gabby.

SF Gate: Did you get into playing the drums after you started going to clubs?

KS: It was at about the same time. I went to see a band, the Student Teachers, at CBGB’s, they were kind of Blondie-esque, and they were produced by Jimmy Destri, [keyboardist] of Blondie, so there was that connection. I saw Clem Burke there. I was like, “Oh my god this is so cool.” I would get into a band, find out what they were into and hang out. Not that I was a groupie, but you get energy from that situation. The Student Teachers had a female drummer and I thought, “Wow, maybe I should play drums.” Fate I guess. Those certain things in life that direct your path or direction.

SF Gate: So exactly how did you connect with the Beastie Boys?

KS: I met John Barry, the original guitarist, outside Tier 3, and he was playing in a band with Mike Diamond called Young Aborigines. He’s like, “You should come up and play percussion.” We’d rehearse up at Mike’s apartment and after Young Aborigines, I’d play drums and Mike would sing. It was in the direction of hardcore punk.

SF Gate: After being together with Jill and Gabby so long, is the friendship among the three of you still as strong as when you first met?

KS: I think since you end up spending a lot of time together, when you’re not together, you’re not like, “Hey Gabby, let’s go hang out.” We’re still friends. We have a really good time, we laugh a lot. You have to laugh at a lot of the situations we get into because they’re so ridiculous. Like meeting weird people, ridiculous questions in interviews. If you take everything seriously, you’d go crazy, like I’m sure with any job. We’re pretty mature. If anyone gets pissed off, we deal with it.

SF Gate: There’s a photo on the CD of you and Jill when you were little kids in dance class together. What’s the story behind that?

KS: We both grew up in Greenwich Village and there was this Greenwich House Music School. I also went there for piano lessons and I think I took one of their pottery classes. There was this eurythmic dance class taught by a kooky woman. It was a very experimental class.

SF Gate: Did you actually stick with the dancing?

KS: I’m sticking with it everyday. Mya [on the Lilith Fair tour] has these incredible dancers onstage. We’re trying to pick up some tips, working on a dance routine for the finale.

SF Gate: I know you don’t write the lyrics, but have you noticed a difference in Jill and Gabby’s writing styles over the years?

KS: I think the first releases were kind of outwardly singing to other people. The third release was much more introspective, bleak, dark. This last one was more celebratory, more storytelling.

SF Gate: Are they stories you all had together?

KS: There’s a song, “Sexy Hypnotist,” [that] Jill wrote. She was influenced by a day we had in Las Vegas and what a kooky scene it is there. She had seen some ad for a magician’s assistant. It made us think about all the desperate people who go to Las Vegas. Why do they go there? For fame and fortune, and they end up working as a magician’s assistant or something or working on the Strip. It’s such a bizarre scene. Then there’s a song, “Alien Lover,” inspired by an acquaintance of ours who had an alien experience.

SF Gate: Do you believe the person actually had an alien encounter?

KS: Not really. But I think it’s egocentric of us to think there aren’t other life forms out there. But why on earth they would come and visit us is beyond me.

SF Gate: Do you have any desire to do the lyric writing?

KS: When I have tried it’s just been so corny and so cliched that I just decided not to do it. Even as a fan of music I’ve never been that into the lyrics. I know the sound of the lyrics but not the words, and I don’t care. Some kinds of lyrics capture my ear, like Liz Phair’s lyrics I find compelling.

SF Gate: Was it a lot different working on this CD without Vivian?

KS: She didn’t do a whole lot of writing. She collaborated a bit on the last record, but it’s mostly been Gabby and Jill writing the material. There’s definitely a sound she contributed — a style and emotion that’s lacking on this record. But she’s much more happy doing her own thing, living in New York, making music, getting into soundtracks. She’s working with Josephine Wiggs, who was in the Breeders, and they have a project [called] Dusty Trails, and they’re trying to put out a CD and looking for a home for it.

SF Gate: Do you ever get frustrated with the whole tour thing?

KS: Every once in a while you get to the end of your rope because things get so crazy. It usually has nothing to do with the music. When you get in a band, and it’s on a major label you realize most of what you do is business, about 75 percent, and about 25 percent of what you do is music and recording. Sometimes when the 75 percent gets the best of you, it’s like, “Oh my god, is this worth it?” It becomes difficult at times, but then it beats working in an office or waiting tables.

SF Gate: What about being on a big tour like Lilith?

KS: It’s a really great atmosphere. It’s a healthy tour. But here’s something to give you an example. We’re going to San Francisco to play two shows, and we can’t find a place to stay. All the hotels are booked. There’s a big computer convention. Every single room in San Francisco is booked. Not only in San Francisco but in the outlying areas. It’s like, what are we going to do?

SF Gate: Obviously you were basketball fans to have named Luscious Jackson after a basketball player [former Philadelphia 76er Lucious Jackson]. Did you guys follow the Knicks in the finals?

KS: We were actually in Europe for most of that, which was such a drag. Every morning we’d wake up and hear, “Larry Johnson scored an impossible four point play.” I can’t believe we missed it. Today at the venue there’s a basketball hoop. I can’t wait to get there.

SF Gate: Did you bring a basketball?

KS: Oh yeah. I’m trying to drum up interest in the sport amongst the other Lilith people, but they’re all like, “We’re going to play softball.” We’ll see. I’m trying to get Beth Orton to play because she’s nice and tall.

SF Gate: Are there any other projects you’re involved in?

KS: We’re looking to get involved with local youth groups while we’re on tour and have people come in and do a songwriting workshop during a soundcheck. I think we had a lot of access to bands and learned a lot when seeing people at clubs, so we’re trying to give something back.

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