by Kodwo Eshnu
Luscious Jackson embody New York’s old school cool. They’re more than just a female version of The Beastie Boys – and they’re going to be even bigger.
Around the corner from Delancey Street on the Lower West Side of Greenwich Village, there’s what looks like a greenhouse in full effect. Actually a Caribbean restaurant, in its overheated interior bougainvillea and hibiscus plants thrive. Thick odiferous orchids sprawl in involuted tangles of spiralling greenery, hang from suspended baskets, lurch across the rough hewn tables and coil and caress the windows, their tendrils tracing the trails of hot air that gust through whenever somebody opens the door.
August in Downtown Manhattan is a tactile time. Guys and gals, some parboiled pink, others glowing brown, move down the weed-stitched pavements as if underwater. The air kisses behind their necks, leaves wet fingerprints behind their ears and between their eyebrows. It is so bright that it’s deafening. You have to squint to hear as well as to see anything. My eyelids wrinkle the restaurant down to cinemascope before framing Luscious Jackson, the four of them, lodged carefully around a table.
None of them looks even remotely fazed by the city heat. This is their home turf, after all, to which they’ve returned after playing Lollapalooza ’94 alongside The Breeders, L7, The Beastie Boys and A Tribe Called Quest. Gaby Glazer, dark eyebrows frowning slightly, asks for a drag from my cigarette. Hunched across the table, she looks smaller than her photos suggest, retreating slightly behind hair that falls over the right side of her face. But her voice and manner is quick, light, confident.
She has the air of a co-founder, of the writer/guitarist/co-producer who invented Luscious Jackson three years ago with her high school friend, Jill Cunniff. On the inside sleeve of last year’s debut EP In Search Of Manny, Jill is drenched in a tumbling mane of thick hair. On the sleeve to this year’sNatural Ingredients LP, it’s worn stacked in the style of Ari Up; the original dreadpunk from The Slits, the first wave noise-dub-funk group who Jill refers to over and over again. Now with short hair, her face is precise and neat.
Opposite her is their drummer Kate Schellenbach, whose serious and focused air eventually gives way to a deprecating wit. She used to play in three other bands, including The Beastie Boys, and the others seem to regard her with a certain deference. And to the right is keyboard player, Vivian Trimble, whose wide eyes reveal nothing but boredom for the first half-hour. Then she lobs in ultra-sarcastic curve balls; dry, drawling stories which puncture her own poise decisively.
From their immaculately cool name (a misspelling of an obscure ’70s basketball player) on down, everything about Luscious Jackson signals new breed. Jill and Gaby play guitars, they’ve toured with The Breeders and Urge Overkill – but they’re not an indie band. In Search Of Manny (released on The Beastie Boys’ Grand Royal label) is full of drawling, lazy, sassy rap – but that doesn’t make them a hip hop crew. Manny switches from growling wah-wah blaxploitation grooves to taut’n’trebly early ’80s post punk riffs, so there’s a punk-funk lo-fi thang definitely going on.
“In the face of kaos I give up my greed/ Insane and unknown is my only creed/ Enjoy, destroy, then set you free/ No, no, no, the kaos never lets you go.” All those teen girls shouting the words to Daughters Of Kaos at Glastonbury this summer, the ones Jill spotted at Lollapalooza wearing Chinese pants and boots like hers; they understand, they see that Luscious have invented a new kind of girl-being, a new way of getting through in this world just by being themselves.
Like the home movies Gus Van Sant attaches to the credits of Drugstore Cowboy, Manny is personal lo-fi music. It draws on private obsessions which connect just because they are particular. Take the sleeve, for example. That Italian-looking guy sprawling on a sofa with his legs open and something (a eer can? a toy car?) poised nonchalantly in front of his crotch. That’s an ex-boyfriend of Gaby’s mother, snatched from a photo album. Let Yourself Get Down, a warped old school rap track, samples an ancient anarchist punk group. Elsewhere, Elephant’s Memory, the psychedelic group who play in the party sequence of Midnight Cowboy, turn up in the mix because it’s Gaby’s favourite movie. Luscious Jackson please themselves, and this blending and blurring between post-punk and funk, between old school beats and high pitched attitude, consequently smells like freedom to their fans. Manny’s real message is ‘include it all, all the bits of yourself that aren’t hip or especially cool’. And so it comes out as a soundtrack for skateboarders as well as indie kids; its unfazed attitude connecting with a generation who’ve been niche-marketed and targeted to death; brand-named, spoken for and spoken at, so much, so heavily, they’re not sure they exist any more.
And yet the Luscious gals aren’t the same generation as their fans. They’re not even really major skate freaks or anything. Who are they, these four who break all the rules so effortlessly? They are the last Downtowners, the first Bohemians for the Ex-Generation, the late bloomers who arrived just at the right moment. Think of Luscious Jackson as the last of the early ’80s Lower East Side scene, think of long-forgotten clubs where The Slits would play one week, Bad Brains the next and Afrika Bambaata the week after.
Luscious watched The Beastie Boys, who they’d known from their teens, become successful. Fab Five Freddy, Madonna, Deee-lite, Karen Finlay: all came out of this scene, moved out of the clubs, into the charts, into popcult status. And now it’s their turn. “We used to go see all these groups at clubs like the Roxy, the Mud Club and Tier 3. In the early ’80s when we were like 15, 16, 17, that openness was really attractive to us because people wanted to meet you, people who were making very different kinds of music,” Jill insists. “It wasn’t like, ‘OK you’re not making the same kind of music I’m making, so I’m not going to talk to you’. It was very special that way.”
“We grew up really fast,” Gaby points out. “The Beastie Boys were guys we’d go clubbing with, stay over at their house in a big group, all those kinda things. We were all heavily into English stuff like The Slits and Delta 5. Kate used to drum for them when they were a hardcore group. We were like 14, 15, and sometimes we wouldn’t even get into clubs, just hang outside y’know? We’d make up hand stamps and stuff like that to get into places. When The Beastie Boys skyrocketed, it was like this alarm bell went off and no-one cared about the music any more. Coke, fashion and big money came in and changed everything. We all got very jaded and there hasn’t really been a scene we could attach ourselves to since.”
But if Luscious Jackson were merely harking back to their teenage years, then the music they make would have died with the scene they mourn. Instead, they’ve fashioned that club memory into something that resonates now. The new album, Natural Ingredients, sounds even less like the sum of their influences than Manny did. Tracks are drenched in a ghostly city ambience, like the fog which shrouds the skyscrapers on the record’s inner sleeve. Footsteps tap in the background of the soundscape, merge into acoustic guitars, dissolve again into indecipherable blaxploitation samples. There’s a heavy atmosphere that chimes with Gaby and Jill’s vocals, which are even more recessive and mumbling than ever. The album veers between assertive, energetic statements which show the influence of Mary Daly (the ’70s feminist author of Gyn/Ecology who Jill credits on the sleeve) and dissolution into static and frequency, as on the last track, LP Retreat. Here, decades of record buying and music hunting are distilled into an escape to “vinyl shores”, a lament for “how the culture we come from divides us”.
“I guess you could call me a tomboy,” Gaby says in between slugs of Red Stripe. “Growing up in high school, all the girls there wer like, ‘oh how did you do your hair’. They were very into fashion and make-up. They were just these…”
“Typical girls,” Jill interjects.
“Yeah. Typical girls. Right. Just like The Slits said.”
“Call me a tomboy and I like it,” Jill sings, and then cackles.
“To me it was nice meeting girls on the punk scene who weren’t like all the girls in high school who had big boobs and perfect hair and ten dates,” says Gaby.
Vivian: “It was so funny. Today I was walking down 13th Street and there were these girls, and they were so perfect. I looked at them and I thought, ‘how can you be so perfect?’ Like perfect hair, perfect dresses, perfect nails and perfect shoes.”
Gaby interrupts. “Yeah, they take care of themselves.”
Vivian comes back to her story. “And they’re coming out of their houses with their perfect bags, going into their perfect cars, smelling perfect, talking like this high-pitched talk, and I was like, ‘oh my God’; I just felt the rift, you know, that I’d always unconsciously felt. It’s like a different breed of females.”
“I just couldn’t make the effort to do all that, you know,” Gaby says rhetorically.
Kate joins in. “Oh my God. I’ve gone into women’s bathrooms before, like in Boston, and I felt like I had walked into the wrong room. I was just like, ‘isn’t there any other room?'”
Everybody in Luscious laughs uproariously. “Oh my God, that is so funny. Isn’t there another girl’s room?” Gaby repeats, and sets Jill off again.
So is this the kind of stuff post-punk saved you from when you were growing up? Using music like a lot of boys do as a way of talking about emotions?
Kate: “I suppose so. We were lucky growing up in the city because you could meet other funky girls there.”
“Yeah, the funky-smelling high school girls,” says Jill.
After clubbing together as high school friends, the four split apart to do degrees. Gaby went to film school and then to college in Paris. Kate and Jill studied Fine Art, while Vivian took a Liberal Arts course. Kate had been in bands since she was 13, so art school was not the laboratory of pop that it is for so many UK kids. “It never occurred to me that a band could be a full-time thing. It was like you do your work and then you get to do this other stuff.” After college, each racked up credit in the straight world. “You go to interviews and you’re like wearing skirts and pantyhose,” Kate recalls with disgust. “Yeah, the pantyhose years,” Vivian says. “You can’t afford any nice clothes, so you go to a thrift store and you end up looking really weird.” Gaby sighs. “I had to do that for a job.”
While the Luscious girls did the college thing, their old buddies Adam Yauch, Adam Horowitz and Mike Diamond dropped out of theirs to become Ad Rock, MCA and Mike D. Licensed To Ill was The Beastie Boys adolescence on wax, a boorish brat metal scrawl over the rap they’d all loved. A decade on, and everyone is into bad behaviour. It’s hard to think of Luscious clocking into the Animal House like L7. They’ve done the fanzine thing, the thrash thing. And their immersion in black pop, Curtis Mayfield, disco, gives them an intimacy, a slipperiness that most of their peers don’t even know is missing. Lo-fi sci fi, Jill calls their music; lingering, sliding songs for smart girls and quiet boys, rather than stoopid records for mall rats. Sarcastic, sly, sardonic, sassy, full of oblique one-liners too odd to become manifestos for the media. Just right for an ex-generation born in neon and newsprint, bored with what they’re supposed to dig, hungry for what they shouldn’t like.
And now it’s hip to be what the four have been all along. Kate suggests it’s due to a generational shift in the media, that people like them are busy engineering new belief patterns towards boho tastes. But the Luscious adventure, the demo of Manny Mike D insisted should come out just as it was, isn’t engineered as much as it seems unplanned, accidental. “We were nervous about people hearing it. There wasn’t exactly lots of things like it at the time,” Gaby admits at one point, while Vivian is surprised at the starlust they’re now receiving. “I don’t think we realise just how much people are looking at what we’re wearing,” she says, and the others look sceptical. “I wore this T-shirt once,” she explains, pointing to the logo which reads ‘Sit On It’, “and I never heard the end of it. I felt like hundreds of people were actually reading it, like shouting out, ‘Sit on it! Sit on it! Sit on it!”
Jill joins in and our table gets very noisy. A couple of girls at Lollapalooza, she recalls, were sporting a Luscious Jackson look. Which is what exactly, Gaby wants to know? Jill elaborates, gesturing at Gaby’s T-shirt, the pants she often wears, then recalling Vivian’s spangly silver shirt. The three drown her out. You’ll be calling us stars next, for chrissakes, they scoff. But she has a point and they know it. Luscious are in the loop already. They’re boho emblems in the making; unsettling with their unplaceable lullabies, slipping underneath stadium rockers and skaters heads to wreak an invisible insurrection. In a world where you are what you listen to, Luscious are the freaks you didn’t know you were running from. The ones who whisper ‘fear no music’.
Reprinted without permission, if you want something taken down, just ask and i’ll oblige
©1996-2007 The Luscious Jackson Source