Photo by Michael Hoh
A conversation with the electroclash pioneer, performance artist, political activist and ur-Berlin expat.
It’s been nearly a decade since we last sat down with Merrill Beth Nisker – and a decade and a half since her beer-fuelled The Teaches of Peaches record release party at the long-gone WMF, where she performed her now iconic hits in front of a slightly baffled Berlin crowd.
There’s a lot more diversity than when I moved here. People complain because there’s more and more expats, but I think Germany needs that.
Not one for subtle innuendo but the nitty-gritty of sex education and gender inequality, Peaches went on to gain worldwide praise for barrier-breaking albums like 2003’s Fatherfucker and 2006’s Impeach My Bush, leaving behind a significant trail of bodily fluids and used strapons. Next she aimed for the stage, teaming up with the Hebbel am Ufer (HAU) theatre to turn Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar into a feminist extravaganza and relive her career with her 2010 “jukebox musical” Peaches Does Herself.
These days, the native Canadian graces Berlin with her presence only part-time, when she’s not in her second home in LA. Or on the road, screening the movie version of Peaches Does Herself at over 70 film festivals; signing this summer’s photo book What Else Is In The Teaches of Peaches; and touring her fifth, back-to-the-roots studio album Rub, out September 25.
To catch up with her, she invited us to a café in Prenzlauer Berg, the former subcultural haven she moved to at the turn of the millennium.
What has changed for you in Berlin since we last spoke?
I think it’s grown a lot here. There’s so much going on, a lot more than in 2004. Of course, those were the seeds to it. People shouldn’t be like, “Oh, it was so much better when nobody knew about it.” But the way that the art scene has grown! Music has always kind of flourished here. It will always be the home for techno. Clubs also have lots of different sizes now. [Laughs] And the queer scene wasn’t big. It was very closed. I remember when I came here, I was really having a hard time finding a queer scene that was also open to the same kinds of music. There’s a lot more diversity. People complain because there’s more and more expats, but I think Germany needs that.
Do you think Berlin is still a haven for expatriates, for “exiled” political artists in particular?
A good example is the woman who made Citizenfour. Laura was in exile here so that she could be comfortable finishing her own movie. For someone like her, it was very important to be here.
And regarding your own move to Berlin?
Being that it was 2000, and people were still kind of figuring it all out, people would come up to me and say: “You’re Jewish. What are you doing? Why are you going there?” I said, “I’m taking it back, let’s go. Bring it on.” Today, Berlin is like a mecca. It’s unbelievable. If you live somewhere else for a while – especially America – you come back here and you’re just like, “God, it’s like Disneyland for freedom.” I arrived on a Friday night and went straight to Gegen [at Kit Kat Club]. Beautiful people everywhere, half-naked, doing whatever shapes and forms in whatever configurations. No one was bothering each other. There wasn’t a hype around it. It’s just different. People are chilled about it. In the States, everything’s a big deal or hysterical.
You moved to LA, though. Why exactly?
The weather! If Berlin had LA weather, I wouldn’t want to be in any other place. But I also do like LA. I’m not part of a Hollywood scene at all, but there are incredibly creative people doing great things in a very different way, with different ambitions and a different focus. I have attached myself to the Transparent crew. I’m a huge fan of Jill Soloway and what she’s done. Her writers are not Hollywood writers. They are like queer and trans performers and theatre people. I think there’s a lot of good people there.
When you started out, we had Britney and Christina, whom you called out for their “fake honesty” in our interview. Today, we have Miley Cyrus...
I can’t say that I think Miley Cyrus’ music is amazing, but I really love what she’s doing with her power. And I think that’s really special. Helping all the homeless LGBTQ people, just speaking out, being a little more raw. And she’s taking it in a much different way than people who came from that Disney world. And Rihanna – I mean, look at her new video “Bitch Better Have My Money”. She’s just like “fuck it”. She’s gonna be the nastiest she can be. “Yeah, I do drugs! Yeah, I sleep with women and men!”
Do you see more of a common ground with these performers than 15 years ago?
No, no, no. I’m just me. I mean, I’m not a big show. Actually, it’s funny because I just saw a video of Miley Cyrus’ show, and she did my two favourite things in the world. First of all, I’m obsessed with hot dog imagery, and she rides on a hot dog through the crowd. Whoever’s idea that was, if it was hers or whatever, I loved the whole thing. Also that she slides down her own tongue. There’s a huge image of her own face, and she slides down it. I think it’s great. But that’s not me. I don’t have that money. And if I did, I don’t know what I would do. Maybe I would do some of those things...
It’s been six years since you released a full-length album. What inspired you to do it now?
You know, I made an album, and then I toured it for three years, and then I made an album and toured it for three years and so on. And that was already over 10 years. It was a very exciting sort of routine. Nonetheless, it was a routine. So I wanted to take a little break, just because you always have to shake stuff up. Maybe I needed to be boring for a minute. But I didn’t get a chance to because [HAU’s] Mathias Lilienthal approached me even before my tour was over and asked if I could do a theatre production. So that got the ball rolling for what I did there.
Did your performance concept change after Peaches Christ Superstar and Peaches Does Herself?
No, not really. When I made my first album, I knew I didn’t want to be known as a ‘woman singer’ because then I think my messages wouldn’t have come through as well, but with Peaches Christ Superstar it was a chance for me to use my voice to its extreme ability because I happen to have a wide range and a good ear. So not only did I express my love for this very earnest musical, but I also saw it as an endurance piece, and also a feminist piece, taking all the roles. And with Peaches Does Herself, it just turned out to be a dream that I forgot I was trying to have. When I went to university, I wanted to be a theatre director. I wanted to make cool musicals like Tommy or Phantom of the Paradise – psychedelic 1970s stuff. But I ended up leaving theatre before I even started.
Do these different outlets give you a new perspective on who Peaches is?
Yeah. When I’m doing the book signing, it’s very different. Because when you do a show, you have the adrenaline and you’re hyped up, and then you may meet people after but it’s on a whole different level. When I meet them at the book signing, I’m a person, and I’m just sitting behind a desk, and they come up to me, and I see how they react to me. It’s also a bit intimidating for me, you know, if they’re shaking. They all have great stories like “You’ve changed my life this way or that way,” and I just want to listen to people, and give them power back. It’s not like I’m on stage and going, “Lick my boot!”
Your new album continues to tackle gender politics.
People are always like, “You’re just about sex.” But sex is such a huge issue and the basis of my agenda. My big agenda is kind of a hippie agenda: I want everyone to feel comfortable enough in their own body to be able to express themselves. People who oppose that in themselves, that’s where you get fear and power struggles. And sex is very tied to religion. Are these really the doctrines of the Quran or the doctrines of the Bible or the Jewish Bible? Why is it that they all say the same things? What are they trying to repress us from?
There’s also some references to data protection – as in the line “whistleblow my clit”...
Well, the thing is… Do you know what a hummer is? A hummer is when you’re giving someone a blowjob, and you’re humming to get extra sensation. I was thinking, what would be the female equivalent? So “whistleblow my clit” is a sexual reference, but it’s also a kind of subversion. Also, I am just emotionally grateful to Edward Snowden and his bravery, what he’s done to his own life. It’s incredible what he’s given, in the same way that Pussy Riot has – people taking action in the position that they’re in. If I whistleblowed it wouldn’t make any sense. I mean, this guy is a genius. He had all the information, and he said something. So many people just don’t say something because of their fear, because they’re closed. So I love to champion the people who do.
Photo by Jason Harrell
What influenced the instrumentation on the album?
I wanted to make it quite classic Peaches – very minimal beats and bass. People talk a lot about how I’ve had an influence lyrically. I’m not saying that I was influential musically, but I think I had this idea like – I don’t want to quote Meghan Trainor – but it’s all about that bass. [Laughs] This very stark, heavy kick and 808 forever, you can make these sounds so well now. So I was really excited. After six years – the sounds now! We didn’t use any outboard gear – nothing. It was our goal. We had a few days where we went over to Dave Stone who used to be in LCD Soundsystem. He’s an incredible purveyor of outboard gear, and we had two days of playing around with all these modular systems and stuff. It’s so much fun.
So does your music still have a ‘Berlin sound’?
I think “Light In Places” was the only song made in Berlin without [friend and collaborator] Vice Cooler. And I guess that’s the most Berlin-sounding one. It’s got that kinda more deep house beat. I know a lot of people move places and they go like, “I want that Slovenian sound” or whatever it is. But my first album was made in Toronto, the second album was made in Berlin, the third album was made in LA, which I think is more rock. I feel like it had an LA influence. And the fourth album was made in London. So, you know, I’m just moving around with people or for inspiration, but I don’t think the city changes it. I think I have Berlin ideas with me all the time, and also like North American pop culture sensibility as a kind of epicentre whether people like it or not.
The album could be thought of as a progression from your DJ sets.
It’s a little “fuck you” to DJs in a way because they act like they’re all doing a lot of work. Not that there are no good DJs, but I’m just saying, there’s a lot more you can do, which is kind of what my feeling was when I used to use my machine. I’m just like, “Hey, I can do it all.” I hope that’s inspiring, too.
If you look at the electronic music scene these days, the sound is very generic…
Yeah, it’s amazing that we have so many options and so many resources – more than ever – but we’re more generic than ever. So that’s why it’s very important for me to do my show the way I like to do it, as a performative statement. There’s a lot more, not just in the sound but in the experience. And I see it on people’s faces. I see how people feel about it; a lot of different ages, all kinds of gender, old rock ‘n’ rollers or young goth kids or whatever it is. It’s a powerful feeling, and I want to share it with people. And this is why I’m doing it solo now, and I’m really excited about it. I think I’ll just feel freer that way. Sure, some music geeks will miss the band. My band was very good-looking, too. But this time you just have to say, “Who’s that hot Peaches?” I’m sorry.