Rubbing Berlin up the right way

Words By Nadja Sayej
Photos By Tyler Udall

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.

On moving to Berlin, Peaches was quickly signed to Kitty-Yo Records who released her first bedroom album, The Teaches of Peaches. Unlike university, her approach wasn’t questioned in Berlin: “When I came, it was a big deal what I was doing,” she says. “It was a kind of sexuality that wasn’t expressed.”

And expressing sexuality is exactly what she did, in all its brazen glory. One old, black and white video clip of her first Berlin performance has Peaches standing with her pants undone. She grabs the closest guy to the stage. “Come here,” she says, “we’re going to walk around.” She jumps on his shoulders and continues to sing over an electronic beat as the man walks stoically through the audience with Peaches leaning into them with a microphone.

Photo by Tyler Udall, styling by Leila Bani
Photo by Tyler Udall, styling by Leila Bani

For the uninitiated, The Teaches of Peaches acts as an introduction to her sound and what she is about. Particularly the album cover, which features a photo of her crotch in pink booty shorts. The album’s first track, ‘Fuck the Pain Away’, became a huge hit. She laughs at how she introduces the song at concerts nowadays as a ‘Canadian classic’, because it wasn’t always that way. Peaches started playing underground shows in Berlin alongside acts like Cobra Killer, who were decidedly experimental. “They were two girls from the digital hardcore scene, they did really raw performances, electronic music that was just screaming,” she recalls. “They were loud, messy, throwing red wine everywhere. I felt I’d found my inspiration.”

Since that first release, she’s made a name for herself by breaking down musical clichés and flipping the script on sexuality. One might consider her a mix between the French performance artist Orlan and the American sex-ed therapist Dr Ruth – always fascinating, yet educational beneath a veil of humour.

Her stage persona is certainly memorable – a long, blonde mullet with shaved sides, paired with pink eye makeup that stretches past her temples. It’s a throwback to Divine, the drag queen who found cult fame in the films of John Waters. Peaches’ gender-bending performances fuse the fearlessly unconventional with sexy prose – a stage presence which is deeply rooted in performance art. We wonder why she chose pink. “I wore a pink bathing suit because I thought it was offsetting my aggression onstage,” she explains. “It was weird and cheap.”

They were loud, messy, throwing red wine everywhere. I felt I'd found my inspiration.

At the time of her first release in the early 2000s, Berlin wasn’t yet a cultural fairy tale – Berghain didn’t exist until 2004 and the Euro wasn’t introduced until 2002, Spätkaufs only sold booze and there was no pizza delivery service. Peaches used her Chausseestraße apartment to record the music video for her song ‘Red Leather’ with Chilly Gonzales. “I didn’t have any carpet and it had just turned 2000, so I got this carpet that said ‘Happy New Year’ in every language with champagne bottles all over it,” she remembers.

In 2003, her second album Fatherfucker was released, its title a counter-attack on ‘motherfucker’. Subverting misogynistic, heteronormative or otherwise problematic terms became her trademark; she uses the word ‘clit’ in songs where most men would boast about their dicks, and she’s no stranger to using vagina-shaped costumes.

Backstage in the early years, Peaches could often be found grabbing a fat black Sharpie and smiling as she signed fans’ asses and tits. She became known for encouraging everyone to show their own sex appeal, and laughs that she created a whole new cliché. She has been called an angry feminist: “In a way, it was good for me, people were like ‘Oh no, yikes! I better not piss her off!’ or they were into it,” she says. “But I experienced it in a technical way at shows, like, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?’”

Photo by Tyler Udall, styling by Leila Bani
Photo by Tyler Udall, styling by Leila Bani

Much has changed since Peaches got her start 16 years ago, especially Berlin. “Everything has changed,” she says. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing: “There is actually a thriving music scene.” It wasn’t always that way: “The reason it was ‘underground’ was because there weren’t a lot of people to meet,” she adds. “And nobody mixed rock and electro, nobody ever played rap; there was no rap whatsoever. Until 2009, there was just German rap.” She remembers DJing at White Trash Fast Food and playing rock and electronic together in the same set: “It was the early 2000s and people were almost too afraid to mix stuff, now it’s so standard.”

Although many might suggest that Berlin’s once-thriving music scene is now dead, Peaches appears tired of hearing it. “A lot of people say that’s when the scene died, some people will say when the wall came down the scene died,” she says. “People say when the 2000s came, that’s when it died. People just keep saying it.” However, she is quick to defend the music scene, “It’s still a great scene, there’s still a lot going on in Berlin,” she asserts. “People need to not take it for granted because it’s still one of the most free and creative cities in the world. If people want to pretend it’s a bourgeois nightmare, then they can just go away. Don’t treat it that way.”

When Berlin gained momentum as the capital of cool in the late noughties, tons of North Americans started flooding the low-rent city. It was then that Peaches released her fifth album, I Feel Cream, in 2009. Here, she popularised the art-pop that Lady Gaga later became known for. In the video for ‘Take You On’ she gallivants around a Matrix-like grid with a large Amish beard while wearing a puffy, glowing outfit. Let it be said that Peaches did strap-ons and stage blood long before Lady Gaga took a more mainstream approach. In challenging the status quo with gender-bending, Peaches offers a less conventional perspective. Maybe people are afraid of her – she has yet to be on any late-night talk shows (aside from The Henry Rollins Show) and doesn’t get booked for big festivals like Coachella because her work is too sexually explicit.

That’s not to say she’s a pornographer, or even a dancing gender theorist. While Peaches counts influences such as ‘no wave’ writer Lydia Lunch, Kathleen Hanna’s punk band Bikini Kill and Kat Bjelland’s group Babes in Toyland, she offers a lighter delivery – a sense of humour. Perhaps this is why Peaches relates to comedians more than she does to musicians; humour helps get the feminist message across.

I always say that I want to live in LA in the day and Berlin at night.

Despite her rising popularity, Peaches doesn’t see herself as a celebrity; rather, she says that the approach journalists take has changed. She’s an artist who has always had to prove herself as people hound her with inane questions: does she take music seriously? Is she a shock jock using sex for attention? Does she hate men? Now, she says, the media has accepted her: “Right now, I’m important as a trend. When young people interview me, they say I’m a pioneer. But I’m not more important than I was before; I’ve been doing it a while so it’s just what happens.” Being a trend seems to be something that she’s not entirely comfortable with. “It’s weird for me to be called ‘important’ rather than trying to be understood,” she says. “We’ll see how long that lasts.”

After a five-year hiatus from music while she focused on theatre and film, Peaches came out of the musical darkness to release another album, Rub, last year. Still pushing sexual boundaries with tracks like ‘Pickles’, where she sings about giving birth without an epidural, and ‘How You Like My Cut’, referencing pubic hair, she seems to be aligned with more star power on this album. There are tracks, for example, with Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon, and Feist. The video for ‘Dick in the Air’ has Peaches running around Los Angeles alongside comedian Margaret Cho, the two of them wearing fake penises. They put on condoms and penetrate a watermelon. When people call out Peaches for having penis envy, she corrects them: she has hermaphrodite envy.

Her videos for Rub have caused controversy: ‘Light in Places’ had aerial artist Empress Stah performing with a green laser buttplug, while the video for ‘Vaginoplasty’ had synchronised swimmers wearing vagina-shaped wigs. The music video for ‘Rub’ also earned itself an ‘explicit content’ flag on YouTube, thanks to a lesbian orgy scene.

One has to wonder if all the fuss isn’t actually about content, but the fact that the person in these ‘inappropriate’ videos happens to be a woman. According to Peaches, sexism isn’t over in the music industry. “Music is still a patriarchal world and the music industry is still run by old white men,” she says. Take her recent song, ‘Dumb Fuck’. It won’t get any radio play because of its language, while Big Sean’s ‘IDFWU’ – with the lyric ‘you little stupid ass bitch I ain’t fucking with you’ – has been widely played on mainstream radio. “Take down the patriarchy,” says Peaches, calmly, a mission clearly at the core of her values.

While she is still pushing buttons, some Berliners are packing up and leaving the city. Is it still the coolest city in the world? With luxury developments and gentrification pushing out the independent art scene, Stattbad Wedding – a swimming pool-turned-cultural centre where Peaches had her former music studio – closed down last year after complaints from neighbours. “I miss it,” she says. “In Berlin, it’s getting harder to get studio space, it’s a bummer.” In the meantime, she might be turning her Prenzlauer Berg apartment into a mini studio. “Anything to keep creative,” she adds. “It’s great to have space to do that.”

Not the only space, however. Peaches bought a small house in Los Angeles a few years ago, where she recorded Rub with her co-producer Vice Cooler. “I own a house, I have a room in LA but I live mostly in Berlin,” she says. “I always say that I want to live in LA in the day and Berlin at night.”

As our conversation draws to a close, Peaches lets out a big sigh. She’s had a day off from her tour, but there are many shows still ahead in South America, the United Kingdom, Europe and Australia. “It runs through to next summer,” she explains. But perhaps the testing circumstances of touring – the constant travel, living on the go and dealing with a rotating cast – can strengthen you. “You have to roll with it,” she says. “You have to remain calm, there are variables all the time.” A good motto for getting through a tour, but also for getting through the bumpy ride of life: “There are lots of personalities and you all live on a bus together. You have to remember to have fun and enjoy yourself.”

Peaches is back in Berlin to play live at Columbiahalle on November 24th with special guests. As ever – expect the unexpected.