ELECTRIC LADYLAND LUSCIOUS JACKSON WAS CRAFTING GIDDY POP PASTICHES WHEN SEAN LENNON WAS STILL IN SHORT PANTS. FOR THEIR NEXT ACT, THEY’RE DOING SOMETHING EVEN WEIRDER–GROWING UP
by Maureen Callahan
Every Tuesday night, Kate Schellenbach, the 32-year-old drummer for Luscious Jackson, does something that could be considered a bit ill-advised, even a little risky: She plays basketball in a local all-women’s league. “I’ve jammed my finger up pretty badly,” she says, winding tape around her left ring finger. “I’m still in physical therapy for it.” Punctual to a fault, she’s an hour early for tonight’s 8 o’clock game at chelsea Piers, a sprawling sports complex on Manhattan’s West Side.
As her teammates straggle in, Schellenbach rises from her courtside perch to greet each one. Here’s Rebecca, a spiky-haired lawyer-turned-hands-on-healer who begins talking about the eight-week toxin-purging diet she’s just begun. “You have to cut out wheat, dairy, meat, caffeine, sugar, and booze,” Rebecca reports cheerfully. “Right now I’m just drinking vegetable juice. It’s great.” Betsy, the team’s star, works as a carpenter. a speech terapist, an ad saleswoman, and a Web-site designer round out the team; like Schellenbach, they have an air of rugged athleticism that indicates they’d prefer a six pack of cotton socks to an eyebrow wax. They’re also all unfailingly polite–even after the whistle blows. When the opposition scores, Schellenbach’s team–which wins by ten points–exclaims “Nice shot!” Huddling between quarters, they psych themselves up by stacking hands and yelling–not too loudly–“Let’s win!”
“We used to say, ‘Kick ass!'” Schellenbach explains, catching her breath during a time-out. “But our coact was like, ‘Can’t you say something nicer?'” she lets out a soft laugh. “So now we don’t say that so much anymore.”
If you didn’t know any better, you’d never mistake the ladies of Luscious Jackson for born-and-bred New Yorkers, let alone rock stars who’ve defined themselves by their uber-hip adolescence. Guitarist Gabby Glaser hung out with Joe Strummer when the Clash were recording Sandinista!, singer Jill Cunniff spent her 13th birthday at CBGB, and Schellenbach drummed for the Beastie Boys when they were a hardcore band, before they ditched her to become what she calls “the Daytona Spring Break Sideshow.” “We really packed a lot into those years,” says Glaser. “We were exposed to so much stimuli that by the time we were 17, we were jaded.”
Now in their early 30s, only Luscious Jackson’s interests in yoga, therapy, and pickup basketball hint at their urban roots. They’re no longer such voracious consumers of pop culture–Schellenbach admits that “my record collection peaks at ’83”–and Cunniff prefers watching Ally McBeal or scoring cheap slipcovers to hitting the clubs. Schellenbach evne jokes that Luscious Jackson could be considered “more VH1” than MTV–a bold statement for a band whose giddy pop pastiches predate Beck. their new album, Electric Honey, is the most seamless fusion yet of the group’s influences–punk, pop, New Wave, and funk–but it’s also much more personal, less obsessed with unapologetic lust than it is with the benefits of hard-won maturity. The newly wed Cunniff wrote most of the songs, and there’s a New Agey bent to much of her introspection. On “Devotion” she sings “Think sometimes you’re right when I’m wrong / Think sometimes you’re wrong when I’m right / Thank god I can see your side.” On “Nervous Breakthrough,” she even takes a page from Alanis’s book and thanks someone who caused her emotional trauma.
All the members of Luscious Jackson are mature enough to be sick of the road, and over dinner at a favorite vegetarian restaurant, Cunniff and Schellenbach kvetch about their upcoming European tour. “We’re playing dives,” Cunniff groans. “People smoke, like, in your face while you’re onstage. I have to tell the audience to put their cigarettes out.”
“We’re kind of snobs,” explains Schellenbach. “We’re at a much different level here in the States.” “But it would be stupid not to do Europe,” Cunniff adds pragmatically. “It’s a whole untapped market over there.”
Even in the U.S., where they’ve built up a respectable following over the past seven years–thanks partly to their long-standing association with the Beastie Boys–Luscious Jackson have yet to break out of the Grand Royal ghetto. “I think timing is everything,” says Schellenbach. “If we had come out post-Beck, it might be a different story. He and the Beasties really changed the definition of modern rock–that is can have grooves and samples and funk beats.” “If In Search of Manny had come out last year,” agrees Beastie Boy Mike D, “it would have been Luscious Jackson’s biggest record. But it was way ahead of [its time].”
A deliriously eclectic array of samples, flamenco guitars, and goofy lyrics about toe-sucking and slacker love, Manny grew out of a homemade demo Cunniff and Glaser gave Mike D in ’91. (Though the members of Luscious Jackson had been estranged from the Beasties since Schellenbach was ousted in the mid-’80s, they had reunited that year at a mutual friend’s funeral. “I remeber sitting with Adam (Yauch) and Adam (Horovitz) and being shocked,” Mike D says. “We just sat there trying to figure out where they picked all this stuff up, trying to pick apart the songs.” The Beasties chose it as the first release for their Grand Royal lable, and Cunniff and Glaser recruited Schellenbahc and keyboardist Vivian Trimble. “I don’t think anyone else could have understood what Jill and Gabby were doing back then, ” says Schellenbach. “We really got all the breaks.”
For 1994’s Natural Ingredients, “We didn’t want anyone in the studio and we got away with it becuse we were on Mike D’s label,” says Cunniff. the album ended up sounding fun but sloppy, and Cunniff realized she had to cede some control when Grand royal and parent label Capitol handed the group a list of potential producers for their next album, Fever In Fever Out. The chose Daniel Lanois (best known for working with U2 and Bob Dylan), who “came in with his hands firmly on the reins,” according to Trimble, who amicably departed from the band a year and a half ago. Cunniff was in the middle of a messy breakup with her long-term boyfriend (now her husband), and the album becamse increasingly atmospheric–even somnolent. Asked to whip up some singles, she took a month off and came up with the group’s first real hit, “Naked Eye,” which welded their easygoing funk to a beautifully omnious undercurrent.
But it wasn’t enough to sustain the album’s commercial momentum. “I was kind of disappointed with that record,” says Mark Kates, who became president of Grand Royal a year and a half later. “I felt it was more Daniel Lanois than them, and that if needed more groove.” How did Cunniff take that? “She was a little defensive at first,” admits kates. “But Jill also has a rare level of determination. She agreed that the band hadn’t yet made a top-to-bottom great record.”
Electric Honey, say all involved, is that record. The band set out to make a more accessible album–they enlisted four producers and hapily solicited advice from both Kates and Mike D–and it shows. The first single, “Ladyfingers,” is as infectious as last winter’s flu, and “Sexy Hypnotist” folds the riff from the Breeders’ “Cannonball” into propulsive pop.
In typical alt-rock fashion, the members of Luscious Jackson are a little conflicted about success–or at least eager to downplay their ambitions. “[Having a hit] is scary in that People magazine, Celine Dion way, and I don’t think that’s anything we’ve ever aspired to,” says Schellenbach. Even now, Schellenbach jokes, “we can have a tour bus and stay in single hotel rooms.”
In a few hours, Cunniff is due downtown to approve the final artwork for Electric Honey. For now, she’s enjoying a walk through her Upper West Side neighborhood, which teems with everythign she loves: Kid-friendly parks, well stocked newsstands, and her new favorite store–Club monaco. “I’m becoming more conscious about how I present myself,” she says. “I’m really into a ’40s thing right now.”
Outfitted in a puffy white down jacket, white skullcap, and pitch-black sunglasses, the petite Cunniff strikes a slighly incongruous figure amid the nannies and dog-walkers out of r amidday stroll. In her downtime, Cunniff likes reading Wallpaper* magazine and hanging out with her husband, a film technician, but mostly she writes. “I feel like I could write for a punk band or a country singer,” she says. (She’s recently penned songs for Emmylou Harris and the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.) When she first sat down to write Electric Honey, she worried that her domestic happiness might be a hindrance. “Sadness has always been really easy for me,” she says, staring straight ahead. “Not being sad, the goal was simply to write a good song.” She stops walking. “I have to say, I’m definitely becoming better at life. That’s what this record is–me better at life.”
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