Make no mistake about it; Germans know something we don't. Fans of art-damaged pastiche spit out by German-launched oddities such as Stereo Total, Chicks on Speed, Go Plus and the Notwist know this for a fact. The few American unbelievers were slapped silly when Mouse on Mars came stateside earlier this summer. The trio cranked out an ear-bleeding blend of electronic and live instrumentation, and if you were one of the few fortunate to catch the band "open" for Tortoise, you know Mouse on Mars not only made the Chicago post-rockers seem lame, but altogether irrelevant.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Germans would be the first to get hip to the barrage snarled by a former Canadian called Peaches. Singer-songwriter Merrill Nisker was unhappy in her native Toronto as a folk-rocker gal, so she decided to have a little fun on her own. Armed with a Roland MC-505 Groovebox, Nisker laid out some simple, but bumping beats, brandished herself in the sort of tight, horrendous pink--because she hates pink--outfits that Molly Ringwald wouldn't touch circa 1984-86 and started rapping about, well, her crotch. And breasts. And bum. And the things that can be done to them. By her or others.
Yes, here's a woman who makes Luther Campbell look bashful. With songs called "Lovertits" and "Diddle My Skittle" ripe with lines like (the oft-quoted) "there's only one peach with the hole in the middle," it's no surprise that the country that invented the joy division would embrace it. After opening for Stereo Total and Chilly Gonzales (another Canadian living in Germany), Peaches passed a six-song demo onto friends bound for Berlin. It made the proverbial rounds, and she was invited to perform.
"I did one show, and [Berlin-based label] Kitty-Yo was there, and they were like, 'You want a record deal?'" Nisker recalls during a recent tour stop in New York. Her intonation and cadence is Canadian through and through, but she can hardly be faulted for it. Since "relocating" to Berlin last year, she's been on the road constantly. "It was really like that. So then, I was like, 'Could you give me six months and I'll finish the album in Canada. And then I'll send it to you, and I'm going to move here in July.' So I sent them the album, and then four days after I moved there I was in all these magazines, and then the next week I did a 12-inch release party. Like with a total crowd, and I was like, 'OK.'"
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The confidently pornographic, taunting bravado in which Peaches raps is not so much absent in Nisker's speaking voice as it is toned way down. Over the phone, she sounds like any other 34-year-old woman with one foot hesitantly stepping into adulthood and one reluctantly leaving youth's boisterous frivolity. You probably have a few gal pals like her--the fashion-conscious but not enslaved, the randy but not out-of-control, the politically aware but not so obstinate as to spell "woman" with a "y." In a group photo with friends, she's the one sticking her finger up her nose--or someone else's.
On stage and record, however, Nisker becomes Peaches and growls like a pro-porn feminist, pumping it out in a beguiling caterwaul. It's actually a good fit with the basic beats on her Kitty-Yo debut, 2000's The Teaches of Peaches. It's a bare-bones affair that rides a skeleton of noise squirts, hi-hat snaps, hand claps and straight-ahead thumps that can feel retro compared to the slick production of a Timbaland or RZA, but that's OK by her.
"It's funny that people say 'retro,' because I'm not like an aficionado or anything," Nisker says. "I don't know old-school beats. I just have that machine. And I just wanted to make everything direct and simple because I didn't want it to be too busy. I don't like busy beats. I think people are wankers mostly because they learned how to play all these instruments, and I think they make it more difficult than it really is. Everyone should have one and have fun with it like it was a Nintendo game. I find Le Tigre does that. They're like, 'Hey, you can do it, too.'"
Nisker is actually tapping into a modest trend of art-meets-female conceptual skulduggery. Along with new-wave noise poppers Le Tigre and the concept-is-content brouhaha perpetuated by Chicks on Speed, Nisker's Peaches is yet another collision of art and music and attitude that last gestated at one moment with NYC no wave. This time, however, the "movement," so to speak, didn't have a ground zero. It fermented serendipitously in the minds of many young women worldwide.
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"What's funny is like with Chicks on Speed and Le Tigre, I didn't hear them at all," Nisker says. "And they didn't know me. And then when we all met we were like, 'We're all kind of doing the same thing, and we had no idea each other existed.' I think that's pretty cool, to have some similar kind of cultural references."
In Nisker's case, the whole package didn't come together all at once. Peaches grew organically from a series of ideas. "The name Peaches really didn't have anything to do with sex at all," Nisker says. "It was from the Nina Simone song 'Four Women,' and at the end of the song she sings 'peaches,' and the way she sang that line I was like, 'I wish she was singing it to me.' So I started writing songs, and the name Peaches fit with that. But it wasn't like I was thinking, 'Oh, sex, sex, sex, sex, sex.' And then I started playing shows. And I got a cheap bathing suit, like a third-rate, fashion bullshit, and where people would look at it and be like, 'This is disgusting.' And it all seemed to work."
Even the idea of being a female rapper as naughty as the boys wasn't a move merely to be shocking. "I've definitely listened to hip-hop and been like, 'I really love this, but should I be offended?'" Nisker says, her voice becoming a modest hush at the end. "Or, 'Like how can I be ODB?' You know what I mean? Instead of being offended, I was like, 'I want to do that, too.' In the same way that I think it'd be cool if straight men started to objectify themselves instead of nobody doing it."
What remains to be seen is how far Nisker can take this persona as is. Peaches has only caught on in America this year, and she's already been plastered through every hip magazine from L.A. to NYC, bolstered by album and performance attitude alone. Where she can take Peaches, however, will be a more interesting test of mental mettle. "I don't know where it's going," Nisker admits. "I just kind of see what happens. I really don't have any high concept yet of where it should go. I'm just going to go home and start recording. I mean, this tour's like a year and a half old now. I didn't even bring the 505 with me this time. I just made mixes on my mini disc, and I give the mini disc player to the sound person. It's funny, because there's always a couple of guys going, 'Fucking karaoke, what the hell?'"