When we catch Merrill Nisker — aka Peaches — on the phone from Berlin, the iconoclastic artist is packing her bags. “I’m about to take an annual riverboat trip,” she says. “I’m supposed to do that for the next three days, so it’s gonna be cold.” What does a musician/filmmaker/performance artist do on a riverboat in Germany? “Everything and nothing. Shit in the reeds.”
Peaches’ last album I Feel Cream was released back in 2009, but she’s hardly spent the last six years shitting in the reeds. She’s toured the world with Peaches Christ Superstar — her one-woman version of Jesus Christ Superstar. She’s created a rock opera, made a couple of movies, collaborated with Major Lazer, Le Tigre and REM, and sung in an opera. And on Sept 25, 2015, she’ll release her fifth full-length album: RUB. If you haven’t already seen the cheekily and illuminating video for lead single “Light in Places,” check it out right now.
Over the course of our conversation, we asked Peaches all about her fearless and surprisingly tender new album, and what it’s like to love someone so much you want to kill them.
Daily Xtra: You’ve had a pretty big gap between albums, but you’ve been incredibly busy.
Peaches: Yeah, usually, I make an album, tour for two years, make an album, tour for two years, make an album, tour for two years . . . So, after the fourth album, I kinda wanted to take a break. Even though it’s an incredible routine to have, it’s still a routine. And then, magically, the opportunities came to do other projects, so I went for it. A theatre asked me to do a production and I said, “I wanna do Peaches Christ Superstar and sing the whole thing.” And then I made my dream rock opera — which I had lost hope of ever doing — which was Peaches Does Herself, and that was great for me, because I could go even more over the top than Peaches ever does.
And do you feel like you bring those experiences into the studio with you?
No, not at all. I feel like I left them there, which was great, and I can just start fresh. It was like I was getting them out of my system. And I was excited to be making a proper Peaches album again. I was laughing to myself, giggling, having moments with the wordplay I was doing or a good minimal beat that was carrying it along.
You’re known as a provocateur and an envelope-pusher, but is the culture finally catching up with you? Or are the rest of us still lagging behind?
No, I think it’s great. It’s like, “Thanks for catching up and welcome to the party!” I always said in the press that I wanted the mainstream to move closer to me rather than me move closer to the mainstream, and then that happened. Some people say to me, “Oh, what are you gonna struggle for? How are you gonna shock?” But you know, I never tried to shock, I just wanted to say what I wanted to say, and if people are joining, great! Let’s celebrate about it!
Let’s talk RUB. There are some really interesting collaborations on this album. The first voice we actually hear is Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon on “Close Up” and the last one we hear is Leslie Feist on “I Mean Something.”
Cool for you! Nobody picked up on that yet.
Really? It’s cool — you’re bookended by these amazing, different, interesting women . . .
Yeah, and I’m not afraid to share that power. Also, I think “Close Up” is a great opener and “I Mean Something” really is a great message to close the album off. Kim Gordon is definitely an influence and somebody that I’ve always seen as a really cool, strong woman. And with Feist, it just like — the message of the song, I knew she would really appreciate that. I just thought the melody would be really beautiful with her voice in mind. And she just added an incredible tenderness and a real truth to what I was saying.
While we’re talking about collaboration, how did the music video for “Light in Places” with Empress Stah come about?
Empress Stah is obviously a really fantastic performance artist and we have a lot of similar friends. And when she came up with this idea for the laser butt plug, she wanted to know if I could write a song for her, for her act. And I said, “Why don’t I direct a video of you doing that in it? Because what you do is so incredible, you don’t need more.” And that’s what I like to do, I like to strip down and highlight the importance of whatever I think is working rather than trying to add more and more and more. There’ll be a video for every song on RUB.
Just like Beyoncé.
Well, I did it before Beyoncé; I did it on the last album too. Even on my first album, I made seven Super 8s to go with them, so I always have been very interested in the visual representations of the song, not necessarily as a “music video,” but as a short piece in and of itself. Because we no longer have to pander to a Much Music or MTV format; you can watch it on YouTube, or you can present it on Vimeo or get your own website to show it.
Are you in the midst of working on those other videos?
I’ve made six already, so we have five left. And this is the first time I’ve had my own record label. So, even though I made a video for every song on my last album, essentially the label owns the master to the song, so they own the video — even though I paid for a lot of those videos out of my own money. So, this time it’s really exciting, ’cause I am actively giving myself a budget for each song.
RUB has a couple of deadly break-up songs, like “Free Drink Ticket” and “Dumbfuck.” Is this Peaches at her most vulnerable? Or is Peaches completely invulnerable?
With “Free Drink Ticket,” you’re like, “Is this vulnerable, or is this totally invulnerable?” But for me, it was sharing the feeling of when you’re in love and something happens and you’re hurt, and you have this moment of hate. And it doesn’t last forever, but everyone has that, where there was this person that you love and now you wanna kill them. When I was working, it was very early on in the breakup, and I thought, this is a universal feeling. It may not have happened to you exactly like this, but you have that feeling, you know what it feels like.
Here’s an idea: is the most transgressive thing about your work not that you talk about sex, but that you’re a woman who expresses and owns her anger?
I think that especially The Teaches of Peaches was more like that. Teaches of Peaches was, for lack of a better term, a masturbatory self-discovery. Fatherfucker was a reversal of roles. Impeach My Bush was a call to revolution. And I Feel Cream had more of a vulnerability — maybe some romance. And this album, I feel that it’s post-gender, post-ageist and just celebration, and like you say, owning it. And I don’t know how angry it is. I mean, I kind of love the anger, but also I feel like there’s a lot of humour, and in a way that helps people to feel included.
You’re coming back to Canada for some live dates in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal this October. What can we expect at those shows?
It’s gonna be really raw and fun. I think you’re gonna wanna see it live, because it’s not something that you can watch on YouTube and get the same feeling. You gotta smell me. You gotta sweat with me.
Let’s finish it off with a two-part question: What’s your favourite thing that you’ve gotten to do as Peaches? And what do you want to do next?
The most surprising thing that ever happened to me is Yoko Ono asking me to perform her “Cut Piece.” There I was onstage, not moving, not talking — which I never do onstage — with a pair of scissors in front of me, and the audience with complete control over me, cutting my clothes off until I’m naked onstage. That opened up a whole new universe for me. And I hope that I can continue making Peaches albums of course, but also all different kinds of performance and contemporary projects that I feel good about, that I feel are relevant, so that I can say things that I wanna say about inequality in the world. So, do I get to be Miss America now? I feel like that was a Miss America answer.
I’d love to see you as Miss America!
I promise to cry all the mascara off my face.