Luscious Jackson – Post Soul Diggers by Dean Kulpers
December 1996/January 1997
Hip-hop is as New York as street vendor carts hawking gyros steaming in the crisp fall snap huddled down against the traffic on 14th Street. And the guy of unknown origin standing alongside in a Giants parka. And the meat of unknown origin turning under a heatlamp in the diesel soot and smelling aphrodisiac even though you know it’s more certain than cyanide. Hip-hop is breakbeats coming out of a boombox set on a pigeon-shit milk crate in front of the gyro vender and just outside a discount clothing store offering ladies underwear $12.99 for a dozen and also religious supplies nd Public Notary. Hip-hop is being buzzed thorough a door next to the boombox in thee unnoticed six-foot space between storefronts painted gray so many thousands of times in the last 150 years that moms holding eight plastic bags of stuff do a doubletake when they see the door actually open and you going inside. They look up at the building like something wrong must be going on in there. But what is going on inside is so right.
Luscious Jackson drummer Kate Schellenbach picks her way through the equipment jammed in the small practice room right behind the bed in her apartment on 14th Street, a big sunny loft with a killer front-room view of the Empire State Building which she grew up in and which her parents left to her when they moved out in the ’80s. She is explaining how something beyond hip-hop has happened here. Rather, she is not explaining it. She is simply showing me where it happened in the hopes that that explains part of it. “This is the room I was a telling you about, where we recorded most of the album,” she says. “Tony [Mangurian], our engineer who produced the first two albums, sat at the little board right here, and Dan [Lanois, mega-producer of U2, Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris, and Bob Dylan] sat next to him on a stool right in front of my kickdrum, tapping away on a little hand drum and waving his incense and candles and shit, going, ‘Yeah, yeah,yeah!'”
You think Daniel Lanois, you think he’d be just too stoney for Luscious Jackson – like seeking out a psilocybin brujo in the Mexican desert to ask about carburetor trouble. Hip to hip in what used to be her sister’s bedroom, however – plus two weeks down at Dan’s favorite Kings Way studio in New Orleans for a little clean and polish – Dan and clan have made a beautiful, strangely post-soul album no one could have forseen. It’s out there. Far enough out, in fact, that they had DJ Alex Young put some beats and loops back in it at the end so it felt more familiar, more Luscious. Fever In Fever Out is fascinating exactly because it signals more than just Luscious Jackson’s re-make/re-model as a band. It’s the end of the gimmick. They’ve joined the likes of Beck and the Beastie Boys in peeling away white hip-hop’s stylish cultural appropriation to reveal their own fresh recombo soul.
Sitting in a little wooden chair in the corner of the room, which Kate says was her baby chair I watch the Luscious women move through the mid-day sun selecting from sweater brought by the stylist and they’re vibing me in the most gentle way. They’re healthy and glowing and worried about the album. Worried about moving beyond the obvious. Vivian Trimble, keyboard player vocalist, and choreographer, brings it up a couple times in the course of two days. They know Fever is softer, more fluid, and (if I may) more feminine than grrrlie, less strident and funny than the cracking In Search Of Manny EP and showing less attitude than Natural Ingredients. A little more dark or conscious. A lot more girl-group than the big beats they used to reference, like the ones they heard dropped in the ’80s by NYC hip-hop tastemaker DJ Red Alert. They hope the audience is ready.
I sit there thinking about the last song on the new album, “Stardust.” On it, primary songwriter Jill Cunniff has written and sung a gorgeous chorus, plus with signature Luscious harmonies and summary reflection:
AND WHEN THE PLEASURE IS DONE / WHY DON’T I WANT TO KNOW IT ALL
AND WHEN THE MEASURING’S DONE / SOMEHOW I ALREADY NOW IT ALL
And I realize what I’m hearing there is some kind of step-child to Philly Soul. Not Philly Soul per se, but the latest mutation of that soaring-vocal soul best known as the sound of the O’Jays (in songs like “Back Stabbers” – a nice mutation, like Young Americans-era David Bowie on his songs “Win” and “Right” and “Somebody Up There Likes Me” – which the Luscious gals have unconsciously tapped by running their new-Jill harmonies through Lanois’ smoothing strategies. Which would make him the Gamble & Huff to their Delfonics or Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes (featuring a young Teddy Pendergrass), but which also would bee stretching the analogy, since mega-producers Gamble & Huff wrote the songs that made their groups famous, and Luscious Jackson most definitely write all their own material.
Anyway, a new vocal soul seeps out of the Luscious mix. You hear Marvin Gaye in it, Curtis Mayfield. Vibes. Congas. A smoothing of the gritty hard-dirt clubland playground of New York chix who grew up b-girls and punks. Now she don’t have to yell for attention. She’s got self-propulsion; she’s got the vehicle to express more subtle kicks. She’s got the chugging remix-style “Naked Eye”; she’s got Emmylou Harris ringing in like a visiting angle on “Soothe Yourself”; she’s got the sweet delectation of “Take A Ride.” She’s got touch
Fever is disappearing around the corner. You see it glancing back at you as it shimmers away under th fluorescent lights of a corner bodega. Instead of projecting an attitude or an image hung with the expectations attending rap, Luscious Jackson have gone au natural. Part of what has always been great about them is their ability to inhabit hip-hop or light funk with the personal, sometimes even political, concerns of vaguely-collegiate New Yawk white girls, and now they’ve jumped off the brownstone stoop where they used to hang and they’re traveling. In their minds. To some place and some content they haven’t yet imagined. With all the fears revealed. Like on “Why Do I Lie?”
…HONESTLY I THINK / THAT I CAN COME CLEAN / AND ALL OF MY STORIES
MIGHT EVEN BE BORING / IF I CAN TELL YOU / WHAT THEY ALL MEAN
Hip-hop is as New York as the Empire State Building. Whose shadow swings around the city like a clock hand pointing under a cumulus Hudson River sky at the rest of America. Where the hinterlands are finally asking: “What does urban hip-hop do for me?” Maybe Luscious Jackson is New York talking to itself, looking for reply.
Gabby and kate meet me in the mossy oak brick shade of the Cloisters Cafe in the East Village on the kind of dazzling fall Saturday that makes you pledge allegiance to New York for life. They start chatting away. About an hour later, kate says, “Do you have any questions about music? We;re really good at not talking about anything to with anything.” They’re for real.
Guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Gabrielle Glaser grew up sneaking into New York City clubs way underage with guitarist/vocalist/songwriter Jill Cunniff, and this friendship became the core of a band that would reflect the vital, electric, art damage-meets-hip-hop post-punk chaos of late-’70s/early-’80s NYC. Guitar-based juice like Sonic Youth and Swans and Live Skull and Beastie Boys rang in strangely beat-matched to the exploding East Coast hip-hop of LL Cool J and Fab Five Freddie, Grandmaster Flash and the Sugarhill Gang, Run DMC and eventually Schooly D – and all of it scarred by a barrage of outside interference like No Wave skronk and Knitting Factory/EAR magazine/Brooklyn Academy of Music composition crossover. They both went to college in San Francisco for a while and pursued visual arts (Gabby later studied film in New York), then came back to New York to produce the 1992 In Search of Manny EP for the Beasties’ label, Grand Royal, which was created in order to sign them.
Drummer Kate Schellenbach was in that mix practically as a child, playing in an ’80s hardcore band called Wench (that is so excellent), then becoming the original Beastie Boys drummer at the ripe old age of 15. She was recruited for one tour of duty with the Lunachicks after hearing “Jan Brady,” and was asked around the same time to play on Manny. She and vivian proved so Luscious as to be indispensable. Kate toyed with idea of staying in both Luscious and the Lunachicks, but couldn’t swing it, logistically, and so we end up sitting over late breakfast, talking bout how to catch a Fever
GABBY: I think our sound is different on this record ’cause of the elements [Daniel Lanois] brought not it. Like the slide.
KATE: He uses different recording techniques. As far as learning about recording and stuff, he brought knowledge to us. How to really capture you best moments and stay faithful to the best performance. And he’s a really big vibe guy. It doesn’t have to be a most perfect performance, but some vibe to it and stuff from us; feeling or emotion. He knows how to find that.
GABBY: When you’re recording it’s not like he’s sitting there going, “Hmm, that’s interesting.” He’s there with the percussion.
KATE: He’s like <>in it.
GABBY: Goin’ crazy. Like we might just be playing all mellow and he’s like (gestures wildly) ya know, just like, totally. (laughs)
RG: Did he really vibe you in terms of lighting incense or making a mood in the room?
GABBY: Oh yeah. Totally.
KATE: Seance. Turn down all the lights. Light some candles, incense. Definitely. But I mean it helps because, like when you do vocals, you like to have the lights out. Right?
GABBY: Nobody there, yeah.
KATE: And he just knows these things, being a musician himself. He likes to sweat when he plays so he wears this big wool hat. And he’s like, “I can only really get into it if I’m dripping sweat.” We went to New Orleans with him and went into the studio there. That was really great. Beautiful.
RG: Did you discover things?
KATE: We didn’t really leave the house much at all. Went to bar. But really close to the house. The studio is on the edge of the French Quarter on Esplanade. It’s a huge mansion called Kings Way. It’s not just for him. But it’s got like these beautiful rooms. Each room is decorated in different themes. And he’s got a good little apartment on the top. It’s huge and it’s got a backyard with a Roman bath and palm trees. A bar and a huge kitchen. It’s like a trippy place. Emmylou Harris came and sang and hung out. She’d be up in the top floor of this mansion playing guitar and singing and just echoing through the house.
GABBY: A song bird, yeah.
KATE: Through the pipes, this angelic voice we heard. We;re just like, “Wow. This is really special moment.” Emmylou’s wafting down from the rafters of the house.
RG: That’s beautiful.
KATE: And N’Dea Davenport form the Brand New Heavies was down there and she came over and sang and hung out. It’s just a nice vibe. And we’re not big like, go out party drink, and go to clubs.
GABBY: That’s such a lie.
KATE: I mean New Orleans style.
GABBY: Just kidding.
KATE: Like goin’ down to Bourbon Street. So we stuck around.
GABBY: No. We didn’t drink. I didn’t get drunk once there.
KATE: Me and Dan went rollerblading around New Orleans
GABBY: (joking) Don’t print that. That’s off the record.
I find out right away why I’m talking to Gabby and Kate as a pair, then Jill and Vivian later in the day: hoops! Kate and Gabby are deep into basketball and just like their music they take no shorts. On this Saturday both of them are on the disabled list with jammed pinkies and ankle problems.
GABBY: It’s really messed up. Whenever I play anything like this it just collapses. And I use my pinky a lot when I play ’cause I go –
KATE: She goes, “Nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah.”
GABBY: Yeah that’s what I do.
RG: For all your wheedlie-wheedlie guitar solos.
GABBY: Yeah. All my guitar solos.
KATE: This doesn’t affect my playing. It just looks kinda funny. It affects my basketball playing. I just sprained my ankle.
GABBY: My ankle is still fucked up.
KATE: My ankle’s all right. I just have to wear a brace.
RG: And this has been medical hour with Luscious Jackson.
KATE: Gabby and I play basketball.
GABBY: And I want to play so bad.
RG: You play every day?
GABBY: You gonna play tomorrow with all the girls?
GABBY: I’m too…that ankle is still fucked up. It’s been months.
KATE: Just don’t run. Don’t move. Just stand there.
GABBY: Ya know how boring that is? It’s more frustrating to just stand there like a retard. Part of the whole thing is running and getting the ball and stuff.
KATE: Over the summer, I played in a league. And my team came in second place.
KATE: Thank you. We were beat by Goldman Sachs. We were the Meow Mix team.
GABBY: I do pick-up games and that’s so fun. Like you and a friend are playing. Then a couple guys come over. They’re usually like either 12 years old or 15 or eight, ya know. Usually under 16. I can’t call them guys. They’re kids.
RG: They’re kids.
GABBY: And then, ya know, we beat ’em. It’s really fun. They get a little pissed off. I love playing pick-up games like that. I say yes to anybody in basketball pick up games. Unless you look like a monster drooling and scary.
RG: An elbow in the teeth kinda guy.
GABBY: Yeah, usually it’s just kids. So these kids came these four kids. And they were so hyper. And then me and my friend Ron were playing and it was like six-zero. I sound really competitive. And the kids were starting to get real desperate. They really didn’t want us to beat them.
RG: To skunk ’em.
GABBY: So I went up for a ball and then the guy was right under me and I landed on his foot.
KATE: And you twisted your ankle.
GABBY: And I twisted my ankle. I was like “Shit.”
KATE: I’ve done that twice. I just recalled that somebody last night called me Charles Oakley. (laughs) LIke “Kate is the Charles Oakley of-“
GABBY: That’s a nice compliment.
KATE: I know. I was like “Oh really?”
Gabby wept watching wheelchair basketball on TV the night before. Kate cried over a Lifetime channel profile of the women’s dream team at the Olympics. Who didn’t? I’m getting the feeling that Luscious Jackson got a bum rap from the press when Natural Ingredients came out. It was called their “me suck” album. Their bitter album. Their girl-power album. These two are sick of hearing it. We run through some of the songs and they pick out the emblematic tunes that were wrongly skewed as attacking men: “Strongman.” “Energy Sucker.”
KATE: “Strongman” -that’s like a celebratory song.
GABBY: “Life Of Leisure,” they think that also had a “men suck” thing. Shit, I could write a billion more songs about how men suck, actually. I mean I shouldn’t say that, but I could.
RG: I’ll take that in the right spirit.
GABBY: No. I mean, ya know, you get dissed and then you get pissed off and you write a song about it. Not anything weird about it.
KATE: If I wrote songs, I’d write about how women suck. If other people wrote songs, they could write about how I suck
GABBY: That’s right.
KATE: You could write a song about how I suck.
GABBY: But I’m not having that kind of relationship with you.
KATE: Well, maybe we should let the cat out of the bag.
GABBY: Oh boy. There’s an inter-band relationships going on.
RG: Uh oh.
GABBY: Maybe we should just finally tell everyone. It’s not that big a deal I mean, you’re gonna have to tell all your other girlfriends that…they won’t be cool with that, ’cause we tour together.
KATE: Whatever. You wouldn’t mind if we had a threesome or foursome.
GABBY: I want you all to myself, Kate.
KATE: Oh okay.
GABBY: There’s no room.
KATE: I think we need to break up.
GABBY: I’m not ready for that.
KATE: I think we need to have an open relationship
It’s not secret that Kate has been in a relationship for sometime with Josephine Wiggs of the Breeders. The two of them released an album last year under the name ladies Who Lunch. Which led me to some old Beasties biz. Kate was their drummer back in the day when Def Jam’s Rick Rubin stepped in as their DJ and their sound exploded, but as their shtick went through the roof so did the testosterone. The album eventually called License to Ill was originally to be called Don’t Be A Faggot. While it’s clear that the title was no more than a tasteless in-joke, Kate quietly left the band. I asked her how she resolved these issues a few years later, when Luscious was signed to Beastie Boy Mike D.’s Grand Royal label.
KATE: I never felt like we weren’t friends. I just felt like I didn’t really-
GABBY: Relate to them for a number of years
KATE: Yeah. And then they sort of came back around. And they came back to New York. I don’t know, they stopped acting like idiots.
RG: Were they really gonna call this album Don’t Be A Faggot?
GABBY: Yeah. They didn’t mean faggot gay. They mean-
KATE: Yeah. But they were like joking it meant something. It’s an inside joke but obviously you can’t-
RG: But everybody else who’s not in on that joke is gonna read it the way they wanna read it.
KATE: Yeah. They’re gonna read it like don’t be a faggot. So they just sort of got over that crazy period. Everyone was a little out of their minds. And Luscious Jackson was gonna be signed by Grand Royal before I was even in the band. Like, that was Jill and GAbby’s being in touch with Mike. And then plus, I’ve always been a fan of their music. I’ve always thought they were geniuses and hilarious. I mean, I had my best times of my life playing with those guys. I sound like a complete puke. So, uh-
GABBY: (joking) Start crying now. (fake crying) “Oh my brothers and sisters.”
KATE: (fake crying) “They were like my brothers.” I think Mike has a really good thing going with his label right now. You have to respect what they’ve done with their money and their fame and they’ve earned a lot of respect. They make great music. They put on a great show. And we all grew up together. It is like family. But I never had it out with them.
GABBY: They might have a mud fight one day. We’ll have it out. We’ll see.
KATE: No, I’ve never-
GABBY: She’s not concerned with it anymore.
KATE: Yeah, I don’t. It comes up because I think people are interested in the history of it. But it’s not an issue with me.
They got touch. Everything they throw up seems to roll in. Just like their namesake, Lucius “Luscious” Jackson, who played for the 76ers in the 1960s. The perfect b-boy name. They got forgiveness. They gov heart. They got yoga. Which is why I have to meet Jill and Vivian later in the day at Caffe Sha Sha in the heart of Greenwich Village – yoga classes. They float in seeming centered and order vegetarian.
Vivian points out the single biggest change to hit Luscious. After two years of Lollapalooza, Beastie Boys tours, 200,000 albums sold, and arena openers for R.EM., they learned how to play as a band instead of studio project.
“Jill and I did a Kostars record,” Vivian adds, “which was written on acoustic guitar. And we just did that on tour and that was a way of entertaining ourselves. There’s something really gratifying about writing those songs and then just going in and plunking down these arrangements really fast. A song a day, which is a lot more lo-fi than the five of us. So I think that that certainly led to some optimism in terms of what could be done and how easy that could be or how satisfying that could be.”
Which is why the Dan Lanois connection could work. Luscious have moved beyond the piece-by-piece construction methods of hip-hop to trust their own individual songwriting talents. Before coming to Luscious Jackson, for example, Vivian was a dancer and choreographer also writing performance music for the John Kelly Dance Company in New York. Now she’s happy to be writing”songs,” because she gets to play more and sample less.
“What Dan does is very subtle,” says Vivian. “Sort of keeping with a track that perhaps may be a little more messy in certain ways but more authentic than a later re-try. I want to get really poetic about what he does. Like bring out moments that don’t wack you in the face. They shine softly as opposed to…glaring. Well, I remember reading this thing once about Japanese art. That the dull gleam of something in the dark has more significance. It carries more weight than something which is polished to a really bright shine. I feel like what he does fits somewhere in there.”
“He’s so not into abrasive sounds,” nods Jill, hustling in late from her class. “He’s got everything set u to make something inviting. That’s his word:inviting. It has to be inviting. And if it’s irritating, it just didn’t make the record. ‘Less Is More’ was definitely the philosophy.”
“The battle cry,” nods Vivian.
JILL: I think it’s very sort of emotional. I don’t know what another word would be for it; sensual or-
VIV: It’s like being at the aquarium and each song is like a window full of water and fish.
RG: That is awesome.
VIV: Each one, a panorama in oil.
VIV: I’m just being silly.
Less Is More seems to define their new approach to lyrical content, too, and Jill – who writes most of the band’s lyrics – is ready to talk, here, under brown leaves drifting down from the trees between the tenement buildings, about shrugging off a lot of her more programmatic values and opinions since Natural Ingredients
RG: Do you think you make political statements? Overt statements?
JILL: I’m not really into making political statements at this time in my life. (laughs) I kind of barely take care of myself. I certainly can’t take care of the world right now, ya know.
VIV: I don’t believe in doing that, personally. I don’t think you should. You can set up a scenario and let people draw their own conclusions. But as soon s you get into that stuff, you’re in real danger of-
JILL: As an artist you mean?
VIV: Yeah. You just get in danger of preaching or shoving what you think down somebody else’s throat.
JILL: The “fix the world” thing bugs me.
VIV: Yeah. Personally, I don’t believe it’s such a good idea.
JILL: I would say the song “Stardust” is about letting go of opinions. I’m releasing myself from opinions. Maybe reforming them. I don’t even know what political party I’m in or anything right now. I can’t really identify myself. For me growing up in New York, everyone was obsessed with opinions. Politics and culture. That was what I was brought up with; you read every paper and you get very informed. And you have opinions. And that kind of defines who you are. For me, it’s been a real release to kind of move out of that.
RG: I think that’s a more mature process.
JILL: It just becomes sides. And it’s like, disagreements and fighting and attachments about hat kind of opinion. I can’t walk in my parents’ footsteps in that way and just be-
RG: What are your parents like?
JILL: My parents are journalists and very liberal Democrats. My father comes from a long line of Democrats and politicians. My grandfather’s a Chicago politician. So if you even suggested a Republican, ya know – “You Republican bastard!” I love my dad and I think he’s one of the most well-informed people that I know. He read everything. For me, it’s just like I’ve had to get away from letting his opinions define my opinion.
JILL: Ya know? I don’t have to vote Democratic. Maybe I will. Maybe I won’t. Whatever. I’m just letting myself out of that strangle hold of “You must be this way and have this platform.”
RG: You start to not be able to see someone else’s side.
JILL: Right. It’s like having an open mind. That’s what it is. It’s not like black and white. “You’re bad. I’m good.” That’s why this record is less political, too. Even feminism, the way I might have defined feminism in the past, is shifting for me. There’s a simple definition for feminism which Kate always uses, which is, “Equal rights for women.” But for me it meant about a million other things. More and more every day. I guess I question certain doctrines.
RG: Sometimes things don’t make themselves so black and white, either.
JILL: Right. That’s what I mean by going gray.
JILL: And everyone, they’re still so attached to their opinions that they put ’em in their hair.
RG: Exactly. Grecian formula.
JILL: Yeah. Grecian formula.
Change is in the air. We talk about our political pasts and trade fake apologies for what we’ve just eaten. I tell them that, after having once been vegan, I’m probably now the “worst carnivore on earth,” and Vivian says, “Or the best depending on how you see it.” The air smells like pumpkins and the last pages of books. The new Luscious live show requires some rethink. Jill acknowledges, “We used to be funny. We’d do a dance. We were silly and fun. And that’s great. But it would be nice, now that we’re really playing well together as a group, to really emphasize the musicianship and work on presenting something that’s a little more theatrical.”
Earlier, Gabby and Kate had the same idea. Gabby’s first response had bee: “Golddigersl.” Dancers, lights, costumes. We talk about th rebirth of KISS. About the need for a return to drama, to a show that is staged to blow you away. Vivian mentions that grunge’s legacy has been a certain cold anti-theatricality, an anti-staging. Finally, we get back to what I believe is the key to this album: soul.
“Usually, these things develop over a few months or a year of touring,” Jill says, thinking about their new show. “I want to get some really good dance moves going. The next time we go on Letterman, we gotta do like a choreographed thing. Ya know?”
“Uh huh,” says Vivian, nodding.
“Yeah. I mean like the Four Tops and all that stuff. Those guys really, like, they had their show worked out.”
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©1996-2007 The Luscious Jackson Source