Interview: Peaches – Rub, gender and trending feminism

For those only familiar with a few of Peaches’ songs, she’s a shock rocker – songs like ‘Fuck The Pain Away’ being a lot of people’s only reference. But that isn’t why Merrill Nisker transformed herself into Peaches, for her it was “just to feel comfortable” with herself. From gender identity to getting older, Peaches has questioned what is considered normal, and wants everyone else to do the same.

For her second record she did this by donning a full beard on the cover and calling it Fatherfucker, saying in an interview how she wanted to highlight how casual and mainstream “Motherfucker” had become, even though “it’s a pretty extreme and intense word.” In ‘Shake Yer Dix’ she asked, “Are the motherfuckers ready for the fatherfuckers? / Are the fatherfuckers ready for the motherfuckers?”

For me personally as a teen, this was a big deal. Her music was sharing and exploring ideas I wasn’t even sure how to articulate yet. At the same time that Eminem and Nate Dogg were rapping about “lookin’ for a girl that will do whatever the fuck / I say, every day she be givin it up,” Peaches was singing about how much boys and girls wanted to be a powerful woman – herself, most likely, but someone I and her fans could imagine being too. Strangely, my friends found my taste for Peaches more scandalous.

Now she’s about to loose album number six, Rub, whose theme she says will be “post-gender”, and is on the verge of releasing a book, What Else Is In The Teaches of Peaches (out June 2) documenting her life for the last six years. After a short delay, because she’s “engaged in another activity at the moment”, Peaches and I are connected.

Peaches: Hello! Thanks for the delay, sorry. Things have been a little hectic here.

Anna Horan: No, not at all. What are you up to?

Um, I’m trying to organise a video. We’re making a video. I’m just in Berlin for like 2 1/2 weeks and there are so many great people that I’d like to work with here, so today’s the day when we’re getting all the materials together.

Oh cool. Can you tell me anything about it or is it all very hush hush?

Well, it involves an object that you will see in Australia. That’s about all I can say (laughs).

That’s exciting! You’re famous for your props.

So I guess I’ll get straight into it. So I’ve just pre-ordered a copy of your book What Else Is In The Teaches of Peaches, but I haven’t seen much on what it will actually include. Can you tell me a bit more about it?

Oh fantastic! Sure, sure. So there’s a photographer called Holger Talinski, he was actually like a skater kid turned photographer, and he’s just a really nice guy. I didn’t know him at all and he approached me like six years ago and just asked if he could take photos of me. I was apprehensive, ‘cos I didn’t know him, and then he turned out to be really nice and ended up following all my tours, coming with me to meet my family, you know, getting some really cool intimate moments, and fun just like ‘hanging time’ moments, or intense performance moments. ‘Cos you know in the last six years I did that electro rock opera Peaches Does Herself, that turned into a movie. I did that thing, the whole of Jesus Christ Superstar. I did an opera where I had to learn Italian and opera melody. I mean that took six months of me taking all my time off. So there’s a lot other things, other than the last I Feel Cream tour.

And then there’s the DJ hybrid MCing experience that centred around the boobs – all the boobs (laughs) – costume, and stuff like that. And there’s also some really gentle moments too, and I think it’s a big cross-section of grounded and insanity.

Peaches’ 45th birthday from What Else Is In The Teaches of Peaches by Holger Talinski.

Gallery: Holger Talinski shoots What Else Is In The Teaches of Peaches

It sounds really cool. I knew I just had to have it (laughs).

Yeah, we went through 6,000 photos, editing.

Wow, that is a lot of photos. Did you pick out any to maybe put up at home?

(Laughs) No, not really. Actually, Holger gave me one photo for my birthday that I hung up. We stayed in the hotel where Janis Joplin died in L.A, and I was like, ‘Which room? Which room was it?’ because I really love her. And then I laid down in the doorway and he took a picture and so he gave me that for my birthday.

Aw, that’s so beautiful. Was it an emotional moment?

Yeah, it was kind of weird because you’re like, (whispers) “she died here”, so it wasn’t a very happy moment but like it’s like you’re only connection to this person who was a very passionate performer which obviously had nothing to do with the performance, so it is a strange celebration. I’m hoping that I’m in good spirits, I mean not me, in personal good spirits, but in a good spirit. I hope the picture is with good intentions.

Also in the book Yoko Ono reflects on your performance of Cut Piece, which she chose you to perform. Can you tell me about that? Why do you think she chose you for that piece?

I don’t know why she chose me. I mean I met her probably like eight years ago when I did a remix for ‘Kiss Kiss Kiss’, her song – it’s like that remix in Girlsrecently, that show Girls, which is funny. She came to Berlin for her 80th birthday celebration.

Wow, I can’t believe she’s 80.

Yeah! And she asked me to perform with the Plastic Ono Band. I thought it was going to be like, you know… all different Berlin performers, but I was the only one. I felt really honoured, like wow, she just wanted me to sing with her and asked me what my favourite Yoko song was, and I sang ‘I’m A Witch’ with her, which I love the lyrics of, it’s just so modern, it should be written now.

So we did that and then we sang on stage, and while we’re singing she’s like (Peaches’ Yoko voice) “Wow, you’re a powerful performer!” she said screaming into the microphone. (laughs) And so, I think she really thought that I could bring a good power to her piece. And it’s completely opposite to what I do, you know, I’m always running around like a maniac and screaming stuff in people’s faces. In this performance I keep perfectly still, and the only action is other people cutting my clothes off. It’s very vulnerable, very different for me. The audience watching is insane, ‘cos there’s no music or anything, you just hear people like gasping if they see a breast or calling people perverts if they cut in a weird way or applauding people if like they honoured me. It was a very, very intense 90 minutes, and at the end Yoko turned to me and said that was the loudest rock and roll performance she ever did.

That’s so cool.

Yeah, it was actually so cool. (laughs)

Cut Piece performed by Yoko Ono, 1965.

I went to her exhibition in Sydney a year or two ago, and I was surprised – I mean, I don’t know if I should have been surprised – at how interactive all of her art is.

Yeah! She actually set the blueprint for a lot of art now. You know, Yoko, in terms of performance art and also installation and video work – like the fly video is pretty incredible, you know where that fly just swarming around a woman’s body with her vocal over (Peaches imitates the vocal), or just like the stepping on the carpet and the relation to like tradition and expression. I learned a lot.

They had the same exhibition in… I forget what German city it was, but I did a performance for it, and I also wrote in that catalogue. I did a piece, an essay about the Cut Piece for the Sydney catalogue. So she returned the favour by writing an essay for me. Also, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Ellen Page, probably, right?

Yeah, yeah.

So her piece is so lovely too, about being 16 and coming to the big city  – Toronto, Canada – and seeing me live and stuff like that, how it helped her feel comfortable with who she was.

I was actually going to ask you about that. At least for me personally, I know that growing up you were quite an influence on my forming my own feminist identity… 

Oh that’s fantastic.

… And there’s people like Ellen Page who like feel the same or have said similar things. I was just wondering how you feel about that mantle and what it’s like to be looked up to in that way.

I just hope… the idea for me was just to feel comfortable with myself, so I’m glad that it helps other people. Just questioning things that you see and are presented to you as sort of like the norm and the standard, and realising that that doesn’t feel right in your own head as a normal or standard, or acceptable. So I just try and give my perspective but still have it fun; dance first, think later kind of thing.

There’s been a lot of talk about how Hollywood treats women over the age 40 and I was wondering if you think there’s a similar problem with the music industry?

Yeah, I think it’s just in general. We’re just like a youth obsessed culture, aren’t we? It’s really difficult for any woman, you know, lines on your face and stuff. And ‘Oh my god how does that look normal?’ We’re only used to seeing this kind of face. But I know I love seeing those lines in the face and I’m really coming to terms with that. I can’t say that it’s not… it’s never easy because it’s such a youth obsessed world and [not] what we’re used to, and also your body changes. But it’s incredible what your mind and inside – how much experience and how much beauty you have also. It’s just an ongoing, curious, hopefully exciting learning process of who you are and how to deal with the rest of the world and yourself.

I think it’s still fun being in your 20s (laughs). You know whatever age there’s different struggles, but in terms of like pop culture which is the context where I’m working it’s quite daunting. It seems like in maybe literature… I think there’s more and more films that are addressing the situation of age and more TV shows centred around older women, or women in general. You only get what people fight for, so hopefully we just keep fighting. And it’s fun and creative in the process.

Like I love Broad City right now. I don’t know if you’ve started watching that show.

I’ve been told I have to.

I think that those girls – one’s almost 30 and the other one is like 20-something – but their perspective about like just the world and gender, and just being women [is great]. But they’re more like Beavis and Butthead meets Absolutely Fabulous.

I mean if you look at a show like Absolutely Fabulous, that’s an incredible women-over-40 show. [It’s] incredibly funny and couldn’t be done by anybody else. There is no other perspective on that – it could not be men, it could not be 20-somethings – and that’s one of the greatest shows. Ever. Or like Strangers With Candy… like a 40-year-old woman who goes back to high school and she’s just like a total suck up and unabashed. Not trying to be womanly at all.

On that, for your last album, there was that theme of getting older as a woman. Is there a particular theme for your next album, Rub?

Yeah, I think it’s mostly like a post-gender album. Instead of like those questions, just, ‘We’re there, so let’s get post-gender.’

And for I Feel Cream, it was your first guitar-free record. Will that be the case this time?

Yeah, the same. We tried some guitar, actually. Nick Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, he came over and did some incredible work with us but, I don’t know, it just didn’t work. Not what he did but I was much more into a minimal feel.

Well speaking of Zinner, you’ve collaborated with a lot of people in the past (Iggy Pop, Major Lazer, Joan Jett), so who can we expect on Rub

Oh yeah, well so it was all done in my garage in L.A. and I made the whole album with Vice Cooler who has toured a lot with me, he toured in Australia with me. We made it from scratch just 10 hours a day in the studio, and then Kim Gordon is going to feature on the album, and Feist.

Awesome! Well as my final question, getting back to what we were talking about before. What’s your take on the whole pop feminist thing, like how people say that Beyonce and Taylor Swift aren’t real feminists even though they identify as one.

I don’t know them personally. Everyone’s got their own opinion, but I think everyone needs to be one. Whether they’re trying or whatever that’s fine, just please try. (laughs)

Yeah, I can’t be mad, but that’s a trend. You know what I mean? it opens the discussion and I’m not angry that there is actually discussion about it

Yeah, it kind of feels like it has to be a trend before it can take proper root.

Yeah, for instance, my movie (Peaches Does Herself, trailer below) couldn’t get distribution in America 18 months ago, and now a distributor called me and was like, ‘We really wanna put out your movie’, and I’m like, ‘Oh, it’s ‘cos of that show Transparent came on TV and people are starting to talk about it’, and during the Golden Globes there was speeches about it, so now they’re like, ‘Ohh, ohh, we get it now!’ Or maybe they were like, ‘We really liked that, but we didn’t realise how we could fit it in to context,’ and now they can. So i’m not mad about all these discussions, it’s actually exciting if it continues.

Peaches is performing at Groovin’ The Moo, as well as a number of sideshows, this April.

Originally published on

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