In late 2000, Berlin’s grungy electro-punk underbelly was a small but thriving scene, home to many experimental musicians. When Canadian Merrill Nisker arrived with a couple of synthesisers and bags full of attitude, few would have thought it to be anything out of the ordinary. And yet, Peaches is no ordinary performer. Blessed with an almost physical need to connect with her audiences, she quickly established herself as an icon of the underground for her unparalleled performative energy. Twenty years, five albums, a movie and a globe-trotting stage show later, Peaches has elevated herself from icon to legend. On the back of her first art-exhibition at Hamburg’s Kunstverein, Nisker will perform her largest show to date. Celebrating her 20th anniversary, There’s Only One Peach With A Hole In The Middle will ring in the new decade with a four-night run at the Volksbühne. It is a 40-strong extravaganza of music, dance, sculpture, lights, lasers and more.
It’s 20 years of Peaches and 20 years in Berlin. What brought the two together?
I actually made the first album Teaches of Peaches in Canada in 1997, but to be honest, Canada didn’t get it. Then I visited Berlin and found it to be way more open than Toronto – there was no room for me there, even in the underground, which was still a kind of folk-rock scene in the late 1990s. In Berlin, way more people were doing what I wanted to do in terms of moving towards electronics. I had this brazen attitude and a feminist perspective. I wasn’t afraid to call people out, and people didn’t seem to mind that so much.
What did that scene look like?
It was there, but it wasn’t a huge thing at all. Bands like Snacks and Cobra Killer had similar performative energy. At the same time there was a movement in New York called Electroclash, though I never knew about it. Artists like Chicks On Speed, Le Tigre, Miss Kitten, Tracy & The Plastics, who were in different parts of the world, were all at the front of this movement and embodying this incredible female energy.
It seems like Canadian expats dominated the whole Berlin alt scene.
Before we got to Berlin, we had our little posse back in Canada. Chilly Gonzales, Mocky, Sticky and me. The first time we met, we smoked a lot of weed and started making up songs. We probably made up 10 songs that day. We were just screaming shit! We called each other up afterwards and said: “That was amazing, let’s call ourselves The Shit”. We would wake up in the morning, write a song and then go and perform it the very same night. Dumb, stupid stoner stuff. At that point, we had become this Canadian crew that no one cared about in Canada, so we spread out. It was chance that brought us to Berlin, but when we arrived, we found a very small underground scene. We had brought our machines with us, and we just plugged them into stereo systems and started playing wherever we could. I guess it seemed like what you were supposed to do here.
What stands out for you from those early shows?
My shows have been wild from the start. Who knows what drugs we were on or how drunk we were back then. The point was that we just kept going. We would set up and completely commit to it. I remember showing up to a show to play with my friend, and we had no fucking idea what we were going to do. I plugged in my machine and started with a beat and went with it for hours. Gonzales, Taylor Savvy and I also had an instrumental band that we loved that was called Freedom. One of our first shows was actually two shows in one night. The first one was in Friedrichshain: We brought no instruments, and we just did a rap show with no beats, nothing. It was totally ridiculous. Then we went across town and did another show with absolutely no vocals. I like to think that one person saw both shows and left thinking, “what the fuck just happened?”. It was a very special scene. It probably continued like that until 2001 when people started to develop their shows and ideas more.
What do you do once you become a Berlin icon overnight?
I did an album every three years. I would take a year to record, and then I would tour for the next two years. So it wasn’t like I was always in Berlin. Impeach My Bush (2006) was demoed in Berlin, in Tacheles in Oranienburger Straße. It was one of the first squats in Berlin, and I had my studio there for six years, but the rest of the album happened in LA. I Feel Cream (2009) was recorded between Berlin and London. At some point, it became time to try other things, to make a movie, explore my voice. Peaches Christ Superstar (2010), my one-woman show, keeps getting booked all around the world. I’m glad that I took the time to work on different projects because when I came back for Rub (2016), I think I found a perspective that was very much my own.
I started calling a clit a skittle – which became a new cliché used by Beyonce in her song “Blow”: “Can you lick my skittle, it’s sweetest in the middle”.
Why do you think that your perspective, music celebrating female energy, is so often construed as absurdist?
Look at the standards that female artists have to work by, those standards are absurd and yet they are roundly accepted in the mainstream. Part of what I do is create new clichés. Clichés that ask, “what is the basis of this standard other than a regurgitation of patriarchal systems?”. I always wondered why it was okay to say some things and not others. The most obvious example is motherfucker; I changed it to Fatherfucker (2003). These are very binary notions, but going back 20 years I was thinking about why there are so many more words for your dick than for your vagina. So I started calling a clit a skittle – which became a new cliché used by Beyonce in her song “Blow”: “Can you lick my skittle, it’s sweetest in the middle”. That was amazing. These little moments where I could see things changing, even if no one else knows where it comes from!
Are you a provocateur?
I’m just out to question why things are the way they are. If that provokes people, then I think it says more about their standards than mine. I always said that I want the mainstream to come closer to me, and it has, but that has been more dangerous than I thought it would. Mainstream is not comfortable to me. You do want to reach as many people as possible, but you don’t want things to be watered down. You know, being queer is quite a trend now, and you have to be careful that the essence of that thing is still honoured.
Do we know what to expect from Peaches by now?
I don’t know if people come into my shows with any preconceptions. All I know is what I see in people’s faces after the show, and they look crazy, like “what did I just see?”. I know that I am very good at dramaturgy. I’m good at creating the rise of a show and building to a climax. It’s about knowing when to roll that energy back and when to bring it forward.
Do you still face new challenges in your performances?
The art exhibition Whose Jizz Is This? was a lot of work and required a whole new skill set. Making those sculptures and ideas and concepts took an entire year. I had been invited to perform a 20th-anniversary show at the Kampnagel Sommerfest, it was part of a joint grant with the Kunstverein in Hamburg who wanted me to do a retrospective. I thought I could do that; I thought I could take my work and deconstruct it to make physical representations. As I was working on it, it started to do my head in. I realised that retrospective work is not my business, and I could never do it myself with any objectivity; it made me very uncomfortable. Still, this was my art show, and I needed to make it work, and in the end I was pleased with it.
What’s at the core of the things you want to achieve?
All I want is for people to be comfortable in their own body. That doesn’t have to mean getting naked; I’m not asking anyone to do that. I don’t want people to be like me. I just hope that I can help inspire people to be comfortable in who they are, whatever that is.
There’s Only One Peach With A Hole In The Middle | Volksbühne, Mitte. Dec 28-30, 20:00, Dec 31, 18:00.