Peaches is in Detroit, looking out the window at Motor City’s crumbling cityscape. “It’s a very strange place,” she says, and enthusing about the decaying beauty of the former hub of the US motor industry. “There are gorgeous old buildings that no-one is in. They’re really, really detailed and old – and they’re all full of crack. But they’re gorgeous.”
Such a view is perhaps unsurprising coming from Peaches – after all, her music has constantly challenged conventional perceptions, finding both inspiration and unexpected beauty in areas where others fear to tread.
We’re talking to Peaches – born Merrill Nisker – as part of jmag’s sex issue… and really, who better to talk to about sex and music than the lady who brought us The Teaches of Peaches, who proclaimed herself a fatherfucker in 2003 and invited us to impeach her bush three years later? Her new album I Feel Cream might see her mellowing to an extent, but it’s still full of the snappy, potty-mouthed rhymes that she’s renowned for, from stand-out track Billionaire’s killer line “Big trouble in little mangina” to her proclamation in opening track Serpentine that “Some call me trash/Some call me nasty/Call me crass but you can’t match me”.
The latter is a fine summation of Peaches’ career – sex has been her constant lyrical theme. She says her attraction to raunchy subject matter came from the songs she grew up listening to on the radio – and, specifically, the lack of a female voice therein. “The songs that I was attracted to on popular radio, both hip hop and rock – and I’m talking classic rock, not emo or whatever – they really were about sex, all of the time,” she explains. “[But] they were from a male perspective 99% of the time. So it’d be like, ‘Squeeze my lemon until the juice runs down my leg’ [from Led Zeppelin’s The Lemon Song], and I’d be singing along. But then it’d be like, ‘Why am I singing… I don’t have a lemon to squeeze!’ I felt like there was a missing link, where the woman’s voice as a predator was missing. Lyrically, that’s why I decided to write songs like ‘Back It Up Boys’ and change ‘motherfucker’ to ‘fatherfucker’.”
Our society has a weird, dualistic attitude to sex – popular culture is ever more hyper-sexualised, but there’s also a strange repression. You can see it on TV; violence is fine, but the minute there’s any sex, people start shifting nervously in their seats. As a society, we’re more comfortable with watching people dying than people creating life.
Peaches agrees. “Exactly,” she enthuses. “[Our culture is] visually hyper-sexualised – Britney Spears, the first time you saw her, was a complete male fetish of schoolgirls, you know.”
By contrast, Peaches’ songs come across as uncommonly honest and straighforward. “Once you talk directly,” she says, “and try to make [sex] normalised – which it is – then people get scared and nervous. Especially from a woman.”
There are plenty of theories about where the West’s hang-ups about sex come from – that they stem from the fire-and-brimstone original sin view of sex that Judeo-Christian religion purveys, or that they’re some weird Victorian-era hangover. Either way, Peaches suggests that our insecurities come from a fundamental dishonesty about ourselves and our sexuality.
“I think it all comes from people avoiding themselves and avoiding their own body and just feeling uncomfortable with their own sex,” she says. “People are like [adopts creepy-guy-in-public-park voice] ‘Oh, you must be so obsessed with sex…’ No! I’m just thinking about questioning authorities and popular culture, and saying, ‘Look, [popular culture] is really heterosexual male-based, and that’s only half the population.’ Or maybe a quarter, with queers and gays and lesbians and whatever.”
The other, oft-overlooked, aspect of Peaches’ lyrics is that they’re funny.
“I put humour in there because humour, for me, is the best way to get [my message] out there. I didn’t want to be like a ‘70s feminist, where you’re like, ‘Don’t do that! Don’t, don’t, don’t!’ I wanted to be like, ‘You’re gonna do that? I’m gonna one-up you. I’m gonna out-sex you, y’know?’”
The downside of basing your music around lyrics like Fuck the Pain Away is that there will be people who miss the point completely, who’ll think she’s just some purveyor of smut or that her music is the audio equivalent of watching a porno. Peaches, however, couldn’t care less – indeed, she’s audibly affronted by jmag’s (admittedly poor) choice of words when we ask her if she’s worried that people don’t get the joke. “I don’t think it’s a joke,” she snaps. “And I don’t care if they get it. I’m giving you an honest interview. In other interviews, I’ll say, ‘I’m not a feminist. I’m just singing about sex ‘cos it’s cool.’ I just want people to dance and rock out, but I want them to think about guys shaking their dicks, and sucking on my titties, instead of just squeezing their lemons. I’m just trying to be inclusive.”
Such inclusivity, of course, also extends to sexual preference and gender identity. Peaches has toyed with both over the course of her career, sporting a full beard on the cover of Fatherfucker and spitting rhymes like I U She’s “I don’t have to make the choice/I like girls and I like boys”.
“It’s really fun to see straight guys sing that!” she chuckles.
So is Peaches aware of the effect that her words might have had on others’ lives – by encouraging people to explore their sexuality, or providing some sort of solace to those already doing so?
“Sure,” she says. “I know that I’ve become sort of like a symbol for making forays into your sexuality or self-expression.”
Music has always been a vehicle for personal liberation, allowing people to get up on stage and express themselves, to be flamboyant and shed their inhibitions. Peaches’ own performances are no exception. “I think live performance is very important,” she says. “Iggy Pop for me is the god of performance, because he’s fearless. I just want to continue his tradition. When I started off it was a way more stripped-down Iggy Pop – I just wore little hotpants. Now I’m adding more Kiss/Kraftwerk/Kate Bush elements – I’m not hiding my love for theatrics. But my energy on stage is always balls-to-the-wall, fuck-you, take-no-prisoners.”
Music has also served as a form of liberation in Peaches’ own life. Her music career kicked off relatively late – she was 32 when The Teaches of Peaches was released – and allowed her to make the transition from a career as a teacher to that of an international electroclash icon.
“I actually started making music at the same time I started teaching kids because I’d had a job in a daycare for a week and it was so lame – all the teachers were so annoying and did nothing. I used to take the kids and do some roleplaying, and it just developed into a program, and I ended up teaching in these daycare centres, and teaching the teachers. I ended up developing a career, and at the same time I ended up developing a music career at night.”
The two careers aren’t as mutually exclusive as one might think. As Peaches explains, both are about encouraging people to express their creativity and to just be themselves.
“It’s all just an evolution of creativity,” she says. “That was why I taught kids – because I thought that growing up was very strict. I think creativity and resourcefulness are the most important things you can have for survival, and we need that more and more.”
It’s a theme that has served Peaches well throughout a career that has constantly challenged authority and convention. Fundamentally, she says, her music is about taking ownership of your own life – your sexuality, your creativity, your destiny. “Really,” she concludes, “it’s just about taking responsibility for yourself.”