Rubbing Berlin up the right way
She’s provocative, she’s daring, she’s political; she’s sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Peaches is back, and with her new album, Rub, she’s better than ever. A pillar of this city’s musical landscape and an outstanding example of how it cultivates talent, here she talks about life, Berlin, making music, and rolling with the punches.
At the premiere of Peaches Does Herself, a rock opera stage show that charted the Canadian artist’s history through 20 of her own songs, she stepped onstage at the Hebbel Am Ufer Theatre in Berlin to a huge unmade bed illuminated by a spotlight. She hopped onto it in a tiny pair of pink shorts, grabbed a groovebox and started hammering out a machine-gun sequence of bassy beats. The impressive story that unfolded dates back to her first album, The Teaches of Peaches, which was recorded in her bedroom on a Roland MC-505.
In an early interview, Peaches recalled these musical beginnings: “I was pretty horny at the time and I was masturbating a lot and smoking dope, I put the machine on my bed beside me and made beats. Masturbate, go to the bathroom, smoke dope and make beats. And record them.” Keen to hear the rest of the story, we speak with her shortly before her birthday. She’s on tour promoting her latest album Rub, and we ask Peaches to recall that bedroom, which she says was in a warehouse, set on an industrial strip in downtown Toronto: “My apartment had really thin walls, anytime I would try and make beats, the neighbour would call or ring the doorbell and say: ‘Please, the bass, help stop the bass!’”
Chilly Gonzales and I always called ourselves ‘the weird ones on last.’
Thankfully, she never stopped the bass, but she did move apartments – and continents. After a stint living with fellow musician Leslie Feist on Toronto’s famed Queen Street West, Peaches happily packed her bags and relocated to Berlin in 2000. “When I left Canada, there was conservatism happening with the music and the way I was treated in the underground,” she tells us. “Chilly Gonzales and I always called ourselves ‘the weird ones on last’ because they always put us on at the end of the night. They didn’t know what to do with our style and music.”
Born Merrill Beth Nisker, Peaches adopted her stage name from a character in a Nina Simone song called ‘Four Women’, which features four different female characters who have struggled through different troubles. Choosing her namesake from this powerful anthem allowed her to foreground her mission; even today, Peaches’ work echoes Simone’s own struggle to overcome oppression.
But before she became Peaches as we know her today, she worked as a music and drama teacher at a Hebrew school in Toronto, teaching during the day and making music in the evenings. Peaches started a folk group in 1990s called Mermaid Cafe, then later a rock group called The Shit. She released Lovertits, her first EP as Peaches, in 2000 but never thought her music career would take off. “I wanted to become a theatre director, that was my dream,” she says. “I didn’t know anything about art growing up; there was no musical talent in my family.”
She enrolled in the theatre programme at York University, but it wasn’t what she expected: “To be honest, I dropped acid one day and thought, ‘No way, I want to get the fuck out of this programme, I don’t want to work with actors, I am going to have a heart attack by the time I’m 30, this is not what I want to do.’” She took art classes and fought with many professors who didn’t understand her approach. She tackled multimedia from a musician’s point of view, despite not yet being a musician herself.