Gender upender: a fuzzy chat with Peaches

She’s cool, confrontational and her spectacular live performances are legendary. Now she has written, directed and starred in her own movie. Peaches talks to Una Mullally over a bad phone line about her pioneering work

Fri, Dec 13, 2013, 00:00

Peaches is on a bad phone line from Berlin. Peaches is annoyed about the bad phoneline. Peaches keeps asking me to repeat my (lengthy) questions. I am now scared of Peaches.

Peaches is probably used to intimidating people. Her coolness is brilliantly confrontational and is enhanced by a sense of spectacle live that further extends her mystique. The latest manifestation of that mystique is Peaches Does Herself, a new rock opera, written, directed and starring Peaches (born Merrill Nisker, in Toronto), which screens at the Irish Film Institute on December 15th, featuring a Q&A with Peaches. Later that night, she will DJ and perform at Partie Monster in Dublin’s Button Factory.

“Can you repeat that please, I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on here. This line is really bad.”

I don’t know Peaches, and I’m not going to get to know her over a phonecall. Yet every musician who encounters her speaks so positively. So I got on to someone who has experienced the Peaches effect firsthand, Julie Chance from Berlin-based Irish-Australian-French outfit Kool Thing, who played a show with Peaches the other week in Normandy.

Why do musicians love Peaches so much?

“She’s amazing,” Chance says, “A pioneer of all things DIY and electroclash, a self-made woman, freedom fighter, helps the underdog at every opportunity. She does what she wants, sticks it to the man and doesn’t care about the consequences. She dances to her own tune and is totally supportive of all us struggling musicians in Berlin. She’d do anything for you, very inspiring. An actual legend.”

Yes, Peaches is very much a musician’s musician. The DNA of her beats and attitude can be detected in organisms called M.I.A. and C.S.S., Amanda Blank and Ke$ha, Goldfrapp and Lady Gaga, Gossip and Róisín Murphy. She always appears to be surrounded by creative people. Feist was her flatmate and operated sock puppets behind her onstage. M.I.A. made her clothes. Chilly Gonzales is her old buddy. Iggy Pop jumped on a track on her 2003 album, Fatherfucker. The next album, Impeach My Bush, was even more star-studded, with Josh Homme, Beth Ditto, Joan Jett, and former sock puppeteer Feist guesting on tracks. Simian Mobile Disco, Soulwax and Digitalism produced tracks on her last album I Feel Cream. Every icon needs a hit. Fuck The Pain Away, a song that features in everything from Lost In Translation to 30 Rock, South Park to Jackass, still sounds brilliantly seedy, like Kathleen Hanna falling out of a fetish club, and has become part of the contemporary clubbing lexicon, like Blue Monday or All My Friends.

Theatre was her initial calling; she studied it before she realised it wasn’t for her. Back to our fuzzy phonecall. “I didn’t want to have to deal with all these elements that would probably have given me a heart attack – overseeing everything instead of the creativity. I was too young to handle it and probably would have ended up being a tyrant.”

She quit, and talks about finding musical performance almost accidentally, “sitting around with friends, getting a gig, then getting one every week.” She realised music was “a more healthy and productive way for myself – to be able to write it myself and perform it myself and be my own director and take control.”

Peaches’s output – somewhere on the glam, electroclash, electronic punk spectrum – is often underpinned thematically by a subversion of gender boundaries. Live, there might be an LED torch in her crotch. In music videos, such as the one for Set It Off, her pubic and armpit hair endlessly grows, like a Play-Doh Factory toy. The cover of Fatherfucker features Peaches wearing a full beard.

“It’s funny because a lot of larger artists have tackled some sort of gender issue . . . Born This Way or Bowie. But anything more that that just seems a little too much for a certain age that is their demographic . I mean I’m having more of this issue with my movie right now . . .”

In Peaches Does Herself , “there’s a transsexual with full frontal nudity and right now I’ve been banned from iTunes,” Peaches scoffs. “And the movie has been banned from Amazon, which is interesting, because they have Debbie Does Dallas, which is a full-on porn movie where you can see full penetration and every kind of violence you can imagine.

“There is still something that is dangerous for them. I don’t really understand. I’m very curious about body modification. If a woman gets a new pair of boobs or a guy who believes he’s a woman gets a new pair of boobs, they’re both a big pair of fake boobs, so what’s the difference? Why is one considered one sort of beauty, and the other a freak?”

A cult hero who occasionally pops her head above the mainstream parapet, she must feel slightly ahead of her time.

“I feel surprisingly validated in my career. Especially because I’ve just felt like such a . . . ” she pauses, “I mean I’m such a little scrapper and a fighter, and somehow I don’t even realise why. I had no idea what the impact would be. Some people wouldn’t even know the impact, so it’s hard to say. It’s a big world out there . . . It’s better than swimming in space and wondering. But being validated can be a lot of pressure too. Having a statement is also difficult on the individual when you actually achieve. It’s not like ‘yeah! Great!’, it’s not like ‘how do I keep fresh or be successful?’, it’s more about ‘how can I expand on this and be relevant to myself’.”

Age, too, is a growing theme. Peaches is 45, not that that means anything (she brings age up, by the way.) “As ‘Peaches’, I didn’t start until I was 33.”

It must be interesting then to see young women in the music industry still retreating from feminism, “I don’t know if women retreat,” Peaches says, “but it’s very interesting in this time right now, all the sub-genres of feminism and what people think that is now, and how to include all women, and not blanket women.

“And people are fighting more and more also on the other end. People are becoming more conservative. I don’t think it’s ‘more’ or ‘less’, I think it’s exponential in every direction actually. There are more and more people and more outlets, and more and more people to infiltrate and undercut outlets, and more to prevail maybe for a moment.”

If anyone wants to put someone forward to subvert the mainstream, Peaches is a fair proposition. She’ll set it off.

yyy Peaches DJ Extravaganza, Button Factory, Sunday, December 15th, €20 (plus booking fee) from