under wired: luscious jackson goes organic by Neva Chonin
“Vivian is wearing a pointy torpedo bra,” blurts Luscious Jackson vocalist and bassist Jill Cunniff, over a plate of tofu scramble at Seattle’s funky Green Cat bistro. Vivian Trimble, the band’s genteel keyboardist, freezes with a forkful of salad halfway to her mouth.
“Well, Jill wears a Wonderbra,” retorts guitarist Gabby Glaser over her plate of spinach pasta.
“I do not wear a Wonderbra,” protests Cunniff. “I admit I tried one on, but it was impossible. It only works on certain figures. I prefer my K-Mart bras.”
“I also have a collection of K-Mart bras and some fancy French bras,” Trimble sniffs, digging into her leafy greens.
Drummer Kate Schellenbach puts her fork down. “I wear a Lillette minimizer. For any large-busted gal, it’s a really good thing,” she says. “It’s a regular bra with underwire and it just takes away some bulk, but not so much that you look like a pancake. I used to wear sports bras, but I found they gave me that unibreast look. P> “Now,” she pleads, looking around the table “can we eat?”
Gathered for lunch on Capitol Hill, the members of Luscious Jackson are looking for fun or trouble – whichever they can find first. Tonight’s show, the first on a tour to promote their new album Fever In Fever Out (Grand Royal), is sold out, and spirits are running high. Produced by Daniel Lanois, the album takes several sophisticated steps beyond the raw grooves of 1994’s Natural Ingredients. Emphasizing live instrumentation over samples, the music simmers with steamy hip-hop beats and cool slow-jams. The opening track, “Naked Eye,” features layers of harmonies and subtle reverb running beneath a liltiing, percussive rap. “Don’t Look Back” fuses easy-listening soul with a shambling trip-hop backdrop. And “Soothe Yourself,” featuring Emmylou Harris on backing vocals, anchors the album with a blast of pure, Curtis Mayfield-style funk.
At a time when electronic music has finally begun to crack the mainstream, Luscious Jackson hopes its blend of hip-hop, synthesizer pop and folky acoustic rock will cross over to a wider audience. “No one ever knew what the hell to do with our music before, as far as radio play goes,” says Cunniff. “On the one hadn I think, ‘Oh, who cares,’ but on the other hand, that’s what sells records and it’s nice to sell records so you don’t go into debt and starve.”
For this album the band enlisted Lanois – known for his lush soundscapes with artists including U2 and Emmylou Harris – to help scale back the sample-heavy collages of past work in favor of creating music live in the studio. “Wee were ready to move to another place with this album, and Dan helped us bring out the sound we were after,” says Cunniff. “He’s grassroots, not like the high-tech producers who want everything to be digital and modern.”
I think they wanted to discover what they had to say as artists in charge of their own dynamics, rather than just having fingers pushing buttons,” Lanois explains later. “so we organically performed just about all the sounds. A track like ‘Why Do I Lie,’ for instance doesn’t have ny overdubs at all.”
This move towards live instrumentation began during the ’94-’95 Natural Ingredients tour, when Cunniff and Trimble spent downtime composing stripped-down ballads about local characters they met on the road. “All the songs were based on travel narratives ,and it was good for me as far as songwriting goes, because it emphasized the basic guitar-based songs,” Cunniff says. “They were vignettes written in different voices talking about the experiences of small town life.”
Those songs eventually turned into a side project called the Kostars, whose self-titled 1996 disc was recorded in Schellenbach’s apartment with her then-girlfriend the Breeders’ Josephine Wiggs, producing. They also presaged the mellower mood of the new Luscious Jackson album, which Cunniff says reflects the band’s growing maturity. “As you age, your perspective changes. I think when you’re younger you’re trying to figure everything out, so you grasp on to certain opinions and stances very strongly,” she says, s Glaser sneaks a bite of her salad. “But after a while you realize that everything changes and mutates that nothing is quite black and white.”
Whereas older songs such as Natural Ingredients’ “Energy Sucker” railed self-righteously at clinging boyfriends the new material finds Cunniff – the band’s primary lyricist – using songs as a mirror of her own romantic culpability. In “Soothe Yourself” she acknowledges her attempts to keep lovers needy (“I’ve been soother/And I’ve been wife/Tried to solve your life”); in “Naked Eye” she struggles with he own emotional dependence (“Something told me it was time/To give you yours/And leave me mine”).
Cunniff freely admits that Joni Mitchell, not exactly the most obvious icon for a child of punk and hip-hop , has had ” a huge influence” on her songwriting. “People speak detrimentally of her and Laura Nyro as those ‘confessional women songwriters’ but I say thank God someone was confessing something, because those shared experiences are what I feed off.”
Cunniff is surprisingly candid about the emotional turmoil that shapes her music. “I’m in a much more comfortable place than I was a few years ago – thanks to some therapy,” she says, tucking a blond streak behind her ear. “I worked with a nurse practitioner and did all kinds of interesting new age things. Actually, new age is a real understatement. I was practicing yoga. I became vegan. I stopped using all drugs and alcohol. I just began living a totally different style of life, and the music reflects that. On a song like ‘Energy Sucker’ my attitude was, like, other people have ruined my life. This record is more about what I have done to ruin my life.”
For someone who professes an allegiance to Joni Mitchell and new age therapy, Jill Cunniff – like her bandmates – has led a pretty punk rock life. Born and raised in New York City she and Glaser met hanging out at punk and hip-hop clubs as teenagers. The pair soon befriended Schellenbach, then playing drums for the Beastie Boys.
“It took seeing the Slits onstage for me to realize that being a musician was something I could do,” recalls Schellenbach. “But when I joined the Beastie Boys, we never talked about the fact that I was a girl. Music wasn’t as segregated in those days. Everything was mixed up. That’s what’s ingrained in our subconscious, that’s how we view music, and that’s what’s informed how we make music. It’s all good, it’s all styles. We were lucky to grow up when and where we did in the middle of that melding of punk, post-punk, new wave, disco, rap, hip-hop, reggae.”
“One night we’d go see punk bands and the next we’d see Grandmaster Flash or Black Uhuru,” Glaser adds. “It was a wild scene, but very intimate.”
Meanwhile Trimble, who was born in New York but raised in Paris, was having her own wild times. While her future bandmates club-crawled in the Bowery, she and her French friends bluffed their way into chic Parisian nightspots. One memorable evening, Roman Polanski made a play for Trimble – an overture she ignored, with only minor regrets. “I have to say I find Polanski attractive in perverse way,” she confesses. “He’s got that kinda shady European charm.”
Trimble moved to New York for college and met Cunniff when the two shared a “hell job” teaching English at an adult education center. One day Cunniff told Trimble that her new band needed a keyboardist to play samples at their debut gig. Trimble took the bait and never looked back. “It was a major detour,” she says, smiling. “A long one. Who would’ve guessed?”
Certainly not Trimble’s musician parents, who reared her on a diet of classical music and jazz before she rebelled and “got into a multitude of weird things like Can and King Crimson.” Hearing this confession, the other members of Luscious Jackson elbow each other and snicker. “I thought they were very inventive and interesting, and I still do” Trimble insists. Laughter around the table increases and Trimble, her pale cheeks growing pink, shrugs helplessly.
It’s hard to see the daylight through the low clouds as curtains of rain hammer against the windows of the Crocodile Cafe. Inside tonight’s venue, the mood remains festive as Luscious Jackson wait for soundcheck. Trimble, Cunniff, Schellenbach, the band’s longtime engineer Tony Mangurian (who is playing percussion on tour) and a few friends are gathered around a neo-“50s Formica table, sharing a spread of dessert items. A fruit tart has ben reduced to a pile of crust and a slice of cheesecake is rapidly demolished. Glaser is onstage checking her amp. The band’s publicists has gone out in search of tampons.
“Traveling in an R V is when you really get to know everyone every little idiosyncrasy and mannerism,” says Trimble. “Then, after a year the novelty wears off. It becomes like a dysfunctional family. You know, ‘Sit on your side of the seat’ kinds of bullshit. We’re lucky we get along as well s we do.” P> She watches as a shabbily-dressed man passes the window, with a soaked newspaper draped over his head. “And then there are the strange people who come to the shows” she adds. “You meet the weirdest characters. Sometimes it’s like being in a David Lynch movie.”
Glaser leaves the stage and joins her bandmates. A few weeks back ,she says, she met Slits singer Ari Up at a Bad Brains show at CBGB’s and brought her by the Luscious Jackson rehearsal space for a jam session. “She had never heard of us,” Glaser says. “We played our songs while she sang her own lyrics over them. I think she was really thrilled to see this group of women making music and doing their own thing. In the Slits’ day, a female musician had to be either really girly or really butch.”
“There is no ‘right way’ for women to be anymore,” Cunniff notes, nibbling at a corner of cheesecake as the band gets ready to soundcheck. “And that’s good, but it makes things very confusing. Salt-N-Pepa wear bras and tight shorts, but not for one second do you think you’re going to walk all over them. They’ve managed to transcend their bras. I don’t think it’s the clothing that defines how you’re treated. It’s you attitude.”
Cunniff pauses, her mouth twisting into a mischievous smirk. “Although sometimes when I see a girl on MTV, it’s like I don’t have respect for her if she’s in a bad bra. And I just can’t possibly see anyone in Luscious Jackson performing in tight shorts. Although we might go nude.”
“Exactly!” cries Glaser. “Either fully clothed or fully nude. No in-betweens!”
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