A Recipe for Peaches
It was Peaches' birthday last month. When we meet in October, she said she'd mark it on stage by crawling through a giant inflatable penis.
Held aloft by the heads and hands of her audience, the penis, she says, will bob along to the bass crunch of "Dick In The Air", a single from her latest album Rub. As leotard-clad Peaches parades through its perfectly curved (and surprisingly durable) transparent walls, she will turn 50. But it’s unlikely that anyone will notice with other things, quite literally, on their mind.
Released in September 2015, Rub is as provocative, political, and entertaining as the 2000 record Peaches used to shoot her liberal load across the mainstream. Written and produced on a Roland MC-505 in her Toronto bedroom, The Teaches Of Peaches (her first album under the Peaches moniker) defined the neon club sleaze of early noughties electroclash and with the same clarity as her crotch on its front cover delivered an unswerving message of empowerment to a mass of marginalised voices.
Iggy Pop, Madonna, Josh Homme, Radiohead, Marilyn Manson and more heralded her arrival. The worst critics were angry and confused. The best wondered how long she could keep it up. 16 years later and Peaches remains steadfast in sound, vision, and message, which says as much about her artistic integrity as it does about the lethargic pace of a patriarchy-sick mainstream.
Peaches is 50. And if she’s not dressed as a vagina, she’s letting the thick black curls surrounding her's drip with sweat and slide out from every corner of her hot pants.
An internationally renowned musician, performance artist, writer, and director, Peaches is in a constant flux of cross collaboration with a diverse community of like-minded performers and artists, still angering, confusing, empowering, and entertaining audiences around the world. No matter what your opinion is of her or her music, Peaches is as Peaches was: vital.
"Some people just thought, ‘oh, it's so shocking. This person is just trying to get famous. Whatever."
When we meet she’s sat in an oversized fluffy cardigan, pulling off three different hairstyles and sipping herbal tea. In conversation she’s intimate and open, generous and funny. We’re sat opposite each other. Peaches faces an uninterrupted view of the coffee shop’s exit while my sightline is cut by the smartly dressed man on the table behind us doing his best to ignore rising snippets of our chat. “That was Fatherfucker!” His eyebrows raise. “Get off the stage, SLUT!” I catch his eye. “Personally, I can’t squirt.”
The latter matter-of-fact confession references Rub’s title track video which, Peaches confirms, “got more attention than anything I’ve ever done.”
In simple summary: “the impetus was just girls squirting on rocks in the desert.”
Directed and starring Peaches and made by an all female cast – “just to see if we could” - it’s an explicit celebration of the female form at its most provocative, inspired in equal measure by the avant-garde films of Chilean-French director Alejandro Jodorowsky. “I wanted this vibe where it wasn't like embarrassment of body or its sexuality, it's more just like, this is the world.”
Bondage, orgies, nudity, hallucinations and the hot hot heat of the desert, how does an idea like this even begin?
“I have a friend who was one of my dancers in Peaches Does Herself,” she explains, nodding to the self-directed quasi-fictional biopic of her life, responsible for the six-year gap between albums.
“She’s just a fearless incredible woman", Peaches continues. "She lives in Paris and she told me that her and her friends used to go up on the roof and squirt. They used to have squirting contests, right? I was like, oh my God. That’s insane and amazing. And I was like, wouldn't it be cool to see girls squirting on rocks in the desert? That was the impetus for "Rub". But it never happened [in the video] because our professional squirter got sick and didn't show up! But so many other things happened. We ended up peeing cos we just had to.”
It’s no Divine in that infamous Pink Flamingos scene but it’s certainly not the most common way to close your music video, naked from the waist down pissing behind a cactus. The backlash was inevitable. “Some people just thought, ‘oh, it's so shocking. This person is just trying to get famous. Whatever.”
"Sex is so misunderstood. It’s ridiculous. It’s still a fascination to me. Why are all insults parts of our body? Why do we call people an asshole? Assholes are very important! We all have one."
The desire to make public what so many consider private or profane will always lead to cries of sensationalism. Has Peaches ever been tempted to soften her visuals or tame her language in order to reach a larger audience? Surely by shocking so many, she’s missing out on impacting those who need their opinions shifting the most?
“No! It just doesn’t feel comfortable to me. I just feel like, people will see your content so you really need to do what you wanna do.” And what is that, exactly?
“Sex is so misunderstood," she says. "It’s ridiculous. It’s still a fascination to me. Why are all insults parts of our body? Why do we call people an asshole? Assholes are very important! We all have one. We're all assholes! Like, you cunt. You dick. Whatever. It's all insults about your own body to make you ashamed of your own body. Or fuck off, and shit. These are things you have to do! It's all bodily functions and it's ridiculous.”
If it’s so ridiculous, why does she push it so far? Peaches work is often misconstrued or not taken seriously. Admittedly the jump from activism through normalising nudity or an all female production crew, to riding an inflatable penis singing “Dick in the air / let me see you put your / put your dick in the air / dick, dick, dick” does tend to confuse things. How does that justify her message? If anything, doesn’t it water it down? What is she trying to say exactly – that we take our bodies too seriously or we don’t take them seriously enough?
“Both!” she retorts. “All the issues around it are taken both too seriously and not seriously enough. It's very important to use humour to drop people into it. They're having fun and dancing and then they’re going like, wait, woah! If you make people too angry they shut off. I'm always guna make people angry, even if I'm being funny. But you hope that once people laugh or smile, they relax a little bit. I still see people at Peaches shows who are nervous at the beginning. Like, 'oh God. What's she going to do to me?' Like I’m guna shove my ass in their face, whatever. But by the end they're like, 'that wasn't so bad! I enjoyed that!'”
Cloaks covered in giant boobs, dancers with clitoris hats, woollen onesies with knitted penises soon to be shoved into watermelons in slow motion, removing all this from the world of Peaches to type it on a page instantly exaggerates her crudity. But experience Peaches live or on record and the continuity of confidence matched with an aggressive punk spirit imbues her work with more than just shock tactics or gimmicks.
It’s a grimy middle finger up to the masses. It is real life. Zoomed-in and exaggerated in all its sweat sluicing, intimate brilliance. By shoving her perfectly imperfect unedited ass in our faces over and over again, we can’t help but shred some of our own bodily hang-ups. With bright lights, rolling basslines, and raw, ridiculous exhibitionism, Peaches' brash uninhibited persona cries: "Get over yourself, I have. And look how much fun it is!”
"I would always question the roles, the woman and the man. Just, why can’t I be the lead? I don’t see myself as particularly fragile and gentle."
Still, there’s no kidding that Peaches is an anomaly. The fuzzy freedom her antics infuse us with certainly push us to question how satisfied we are with our own routes of self-expression but that doesn’t mean we’re all suddenly climbing onto our rooftops ready to rain an uninhibited mess upon the sheltered uniformity of our next door neighbours. No, self-expression is a personal journey. And so the question is, how exactly does one end up climbing through an inflatable penis on their 50th birthday inspiring audiences around the globe with such pertinent questions as “whose jizz is this?” That is the result of a very singular journey for a very singular artist. It’s the recipe for Peaches.
Born in Toronto, Merrill Nisker grew up with “a brother that's five years older, a sister that's three years older, and very emotionally stable and intelligent parents, but they weren't teaching me about art.” With family in New York, her earliest memories of performance came from special visits to Broadway, supplemented by her mother’s penchant for old entertainment shows (“clips from the '50s, musical hall stuff").
Her long-held dissent for gender stereotypes formed intuitively. Singing In The Rain, she remembers, is "an incredible movie but I would always question the roles, the woman and the man. Just, why can’t I be the lead? I don’t see myself as particularly fragile and gentle.”
As a young woman, how did she feel about her body then? Most women who are fully comfortable in their own skin can recount when or why they began to re-learn the confidence we’re born with.
“I remember quite early my mother put me in gymnastics,” Peaches says. “I think that really helped me feel comfortable with my physicality. And I think for a really high energy kid it was really good to get me in my body. It just gave me that confidence and I kept that.”
"I went to theatre school. I just wanted to be a director. I did it for a year but then I literally dropped acid and went this is going to give me a heart attack if I have to work with institutions and actors"
“One of my biggest influences was when I started to do modern dance,” she continues.
“My teacher looked like a combination between Yoko Ono and John Lennon. She had long black unkempt frizzy hair, tiny little round glasses and she'd be like ‘heh heh heh heh’ in this really cut up, gruff voice. But she was this incredible modern dancer. And I was like, you mean a dancer doesn't have to be this pretty thing? Her name was Maxine Hefner and she was such an incredible influence on me. As I was going from jazz to modern I was thinking, ‘wow, you don't have to be this ballerina style thing to express yourself and be accepted and acceptable to yourself.’”
The blossoming desire to express herself was quickly cut short at school. “The teachers were horrible,” Peaches retorts, recounting her time at a half Herbew half English school with noticeable fury. “There was a music teacher. I was so excited for music. One day he said stand up, sing this solo, then he said ‘mm, nope,’ and I never got to sing a solo again. Once they gave me a large part in a play and then three days later I had three lines, never any explanation. Never any development, never any process involved.”
Fired up, Peaches reined back creative control by taking up directing. “I wanted to make cool musicals!” she laughs. “So I went to theatre school. I just wanted to be a director. I did it for a year but then I literally dropped acid and went this is going to give me a heart attack if I have to work with institutions and actors, I'm not going to do that. So I dropped out.”
"You know, audiences are a lot like kids, if they don't like it they start talking. So I learnt how to keep attention but also how to be honest about it."
Creatively frustrated and confused, she took up mixed media art classes hoping to find her artistic voice but instead “fought with a lot of teachers,” each refusing to let her experiment in the way she wanted. “I would have classes with dancers and musicians and actors and visual artists but if it was a music piece, they’d give it to the musician. And I'd say, ‘but I wanna play piano! Why can't I play it with my feet and dance around?’”
20 years old with no clue how to progress, she started teaching herself acoustic guitar, taking it with her to a part time job in day care. “It was completely boring,” she shrugs. “But I noticed that if I would keep melodies going I could tell a story and the kids would act it out. So I developed this structure, allowing kids to role play in whatever way they wanted.”
What sounds like a trivial detail is in fact responsible for the creative process she still relies on. “I did that for ten years,” she nods, “it was my own musical development at the same time as teaching kids. The kids were teaching me a lot about audiences. You know, audiences are a lot like kids, if they don't like it they start talking. So I learnt how to keep attention but also how to be honest about it. And also how you can be the writer and the creator. That you can develop any way you want without this whole theatre structure.”
The clarity found in children’s theatre and storytelling is still visible in the immediacy of all Peaches songs. No extraneous details, musically or lyrically. “I like stripping away. Lyrically too,” she says, describing the essence of her process as “finding the hook.”
Another skill indebted to her years working creatively with children is the realisation that their natural spontaneity often inspires their very best work. Realising openness and participation are key to the most exciting performances, by the time Peaches had learnt acoustic guitar, no experience with a band would leave her unperturbed.
"I was like, ‘I wanna be Peaches after the Nina Simone song. I want her to be singing to me. I'm guna call myself Peaches.'"
Named after a line in Joni Mitchell’s "Carey", Mermaid Café was a short lived folk trio featuring Peaches, her ex-girlfriend, and a friend. “We played one show and all these kids - these 14-year-old girls - showed up and were kind of crying to our music,” she laughs. Moving on to electric guitar, Peaches was intent on forming a new girl band. “I got together with a friend. She said, ‘well I have a crush on this guy and I know another guy we can jam with. I was really upset! I wanted a girl band!”
“We jammed,” she remembers. “I didn’t even know these guys and they were like, 'Ok! Let’s switch instruments!' I’d never played drums and I got on the drums. Then I went on the keyboard, a moog, and I’m like, 'uh! All these weird sounds! Keyboards are amazing!' So we became a band, The Shit. All four of us were very dissatisfied. For a year we just wrote together and switched instruments and it was such a satisfying, stoner, sexual experience.”
Built from scribbled diary entries, Peaches also began work on her debut solo album Fancypants Hoodlum. Released in 1995 under her real name Merill Nisker, it’s a scratchy, lo-fi precursor to what Peaches would become - more concerned with what she’s missing than what she’s got. "I'm so obsessed with proving that I am talented,” she growls on "Throw My Name". “I hate all the rockstars cos I wanna be them! And I want them to wish that they could be me!"
"I made sure I wasn't singing like a singer because I didn't wanna be seen as the ‘woman singer.’ I wanted this certain message to come out."
Peaches was officially born moments after The Shit first played together. “We all went out to have a coffee and we said we need to mark this moment. Let's change our names! I was like I wanna be Peaches after the Nina Simone song ("Four Women"). I want her to be singing to me. I'm guna call myself Peaches. And my friend Rebecca was like I'm guna be Sticky. Then Mocky and Chilly.”
The band amicably split, each moving away while Peaches stayed in Toronto. A trip to Berlin with Chilly was enough to convince her the city would become her future home. Chilly refused to fly back, so inspired by Berlin’s creative community that within the next five years he had reached international acclaim as solo artist Chilly Gonzalez.
With no band, and teaching commitments to fulfil, Peaches was stuck. “So I got this machine,” she smiles. The Roland MC-505. A portable groove machine only two years on the market. Notable users include Beck, Radiohead and later M.I.A., who mid-way through documenting Peaches' debut 2000 tour picked one up on her advice. The rest is history...
“I thought, I can make an album using this machine because everything is sort of in the same world,” Peaches grins. “And I thought if I kept it in that world I could produce my own album. I also made sure I wasn't singing like a singer because I didn't wanna be seen as the ‘woman singer’ I wanted this certain message to come out.”
Like every struggle in the realisation of Peaches, that message underwent a complex process of refinement. Asked to create a small theatre production, Peaches began working on a show about Magnus Hirschfeld, the Jewish German gender reassignment sexologist and outspoken voice for sexual minorities in Berlin. “I thought, 'oh! This is going to be great!' And then I was like, 'this is a lot.' Then I’m like, 'wait, what I’m doing is a totally new development.'”
Turning the process inward, Peaches realised the power of her own body and sexual experiences as a weapon of liberation for queer politics. With the necessity of a theatre production she began to “deconstruct my own music by being far more over the top about what I do.”
"You need to listen to yourself. Listen to the opinions of others but always know that it's their opinion."
Returning to the 505 in her Toronto bedroom, over 10 years of emotional and physical development came crashing into focus and out came Teaches Of Peaches.
“Suckin' on my titties like you wanted me,” so go the immortal opening lines. Immediate and visceral, not a shred of self-doubt across 11 tracks. How does she explain the huge leap from her debut?
“Something happened,” she confesses. “A bad relationship. And I had thyroid cancer.”
It’s a time in her life she’s only just started to share in interviews. Why? “I never told anybody, made sure I didn't tell anybody because I didn't want people to judge it that way. I didn't want any victimisation, anything, I wanted this album to be judged for what it was.”
I was like, what do you really want to do with your life? I don't want to be in this relationship. I want music. I had the operation. I didn't really suffer. But it was a big thing and I had to change my whole life in Toronto.
It was kind of like I moved away. Which is really difficult to do in your own city. So I moved away. I had to develop whole new relationships. Feist became a very good friend of mine. Kika Thorne, who taught me how to do Super8 movies. A lot of people, more creative people, that I was hanging out with.”
One album, one flawless blueprint for her own artistic future. If she could offer one piece of advice to any aspiring artist, what would it be?
“You need to listen to yourself. Listen to the opinions of others but always know that it's their opinion.”
"Boys would literally turn their backs watching me. So I would jump off the stage, go in front of them, like, ‘hey I'm over here, you're facing the wrong way!’"
Naturally for Peaches, the opinions of others come thick and fast. The review headline for her first NME showcase was simply, “Grandma, you’re scaring the kids.” She was 33. Including third album I Feel Cream in their ’20 Worst Album Titles of 2009’ SPIN magazine wrote: “Keep it in your hot pants Merrill, you’re 42.” How does the criticism make her feel? Does she laugh, get pissed off, shout back?
“It’s part of it. It happens a lot. I opened for Marilyn Manson and I opened for Queens of The Stone Age,” she recounts. “Marilyn Manson fans would literally spit on me. In London I started a bottle fight. I knew they only had plastic bottles. I had a big water cooler plastic bottle behind me, prepped. And I started a bottle fight, I threw a plastic bottle. So I knew. They just came shooting at me, shooting at me the whole show. ‘GET OFF THE STAGE SLUT! FUCKER! BLEUGH BLEUGH!’ So the last song I’m like, ‘I got the biggest bottle!’ And I threw it and ran off the stage. During Queens of The Stone Age boys would literally turn their backs watching me. So I would jump off the stage and go in front of them, like, ‘hey I'm over here, you're facing the wrong way!’”
How did the bands react? Did they apologise for their fans?
“They know it. They love it! Manson’s like, ‘you go get ‘em!’ I would go out there like, ‘your God loves me! He invited me! You had to pay to see him. You're sheep in black! You're not black sheep!’ Queens of The Stone Age would come out in their encore, Nick Oliveri would put on ‘Fuck The Pain Away’ and Josh would go, ‘hey guys, shake your dicks.’ Having me there is also a way for them to express their solidarity with you know, this ridiculous masculine situation.”
"A lot of discussion has been opened up. I just think we have to make sure that it's not a trend. That we keep moving forward, with gender fluidity, with feminism."
Throughout Peaches' 16-year career the ‘ridiculous masculine situation’ has gradually become a far more mainstream concern. Instead of generalising her message or pandering to any trend for fear of parodying the zeitgeist, Peaches invites new members to join her army with videos like "Rub" pushing more boundaries than ever before. Is there still work to be done?
“A lot of discussion has been opened up,” she nods. “But yeah, I think we have to make sure that it's not a trend. That we keep moving forward with gender fluidity, with feminism.”
So how will she do that? Currently touring Rub throughout Europe until February, what happens next?
“Oh, we can't all be Yoko Ono! Just, how is she still being so futuristic at 85? I have no idea what's next. I’m just on this tour right now and I still haven't processed it all.”
At London’s Oval Space the audience is quickly transformed from mooching nods of approval to a swarming, chanting mass, lifting the soles of Peaches feet as she steps, slides, inevitably falls and sings on top of them. There’s costume changes from jackets jangling multiple pvc breasts to flowing, tangled locks of many knitted neon blonde wigs. Dancers are in bondage straps one moment, sheer hooded cloaks the next. An inflatable penis is inhabited.
In only pants and shoes, Peaches marks the finale by pulling a small, two wheeled suitcase onto the stage, leaning on its handles and taking an exaggerated breath. Wiping the sweat from her armpits with a small black towel, she clocks the audience, stuffs the towel into her pants, scrubs it around, pulls it out, lobs it into the crowd and leaves the stage.
With everything on show, this colourful, crashing, hyper-sexualised reality is a stark antithesis to the one we’re so often sold. After 16 years freeing minds and bodies, what keeps Peaches coming back for more?
“I have a disease!” she laughs. “An entertainment disease! Adrenalin is a powerful drug.”
That’s her secret ingredient?
“Just pure raw energy,” she nods. “I could do a show for you on this table right here.”
Happy 50th birthday, Peaches. Long may you reign.