Pop: Loud and Luscious

Luscious Jackson are a hip-looking all-women group who sing about shagging and put the Spice Girls to shame. Emma Forrest discovers the true meaning of Girl Power
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A London newspaper recently carried an article about the all-girl groups being pushed on us, following the chart-conquering, America- breaking, Zeitgeist-defining, pillow cases printed with their faces success of the Spice Girls. Odds were wagered as to which manufactured girl group - Personelle? Fluffy? - would be the one to steal their crown. New Yorkers Luscious Jackson, who have been with us for five years now and are anything but manufactured, would be surprised to see that they came in at 7-2.

The raw, touchable groove of their work to date and the lyrics to a Luscious classic like "Deep Shag" ("I feel small when I am next to you, I feel big when I forget you - I'm dragging in your deep shag") put them in an entirely different category from girls in boots and mini-skirts squealing "Girl Power!" because they can't think of anything else to say. They've also been dubbed, alongside artists as diverse as Hole, Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow as exemplifiers of the "Women in Rock" movement. The name alone sounds constricting. Soon to come to MTV: "Women in Rock with their Feet in Wet Concrete". Considering Fever in Fever out, released next week, is the first album they've played live on, they're hardly Donington Monsters of Rock / Kerrang! pin-ups like Courtney and Alanis.

Singer and guitarist Jill Cunniff dismisses the labels, with a flick of her Audrey Hepburn, blonde-on-dark streaked hair. "It's just boring. We get asked a million questions about what it's like to be a woman in a band and it's more interesting to be talked to as artists. As gender- free artists." Besides, Hole, Sheryl Crow and Alanis Morissette just scream LA, whereas what does contribute significantly to Luscious Jackson's sound and philosophy is being New Yorkers. Aged 15, drummer Kate Schellenbach was in the original incarnation of the Beastie Boys, back when they were a joke speed metal band.

"At the time we were teenagers, New York had everything going on. It was really exciting to be there as hip-hop took off. We know we had a charmed adolescence. We were exposed to so many things. Often people don't understand why we mix up all these styles of music [disco, hip-hop, punk, funk] and we always find it weird that we have to explain ourselves."

Both Jill and Kate wrote fanzines and are pleased to see them booming more than ever back home.

"In America, it's so big that there are stores devoted just to fanzines. It's at a point where our publicist will say 'This a really important fanzine that you have to do'. When we did it, it was all hand-written and Xeroxed. It was a way to meet bands and get into clubs."

The girls biggest heroes were the Slits, who Jill interviewed for her fanzine: "I loved that album cover they did where they were naked, covered in mud. It was subversive. Because they're not your typical pin-up girls. When I interviewed them, they said: 'Well, we were all really fat, so we thought it would be the perfect time to be filmed naked'."

"We met Ari Up. She was in New York. Gabby accosted her in a club and she had no idea who we were but she came over and jammed. We have a tape of it. She was definitely a hero."

Looking back, Jill says that they merely used a difficult time in their life to make something good happen. "We were not the popular kids. We were not the cheerleaders. We were creative sullen teenagers. Staying out until five or six in the morning isn't necessarily the best thing for a 13-year-old child and our parents weren't exactly thrilled. But out of that came an enriched cultural life."

The debut ep, "In Search of Manny", and the follow-up album, Natural Ingredients, evoked the moods, melancholy, self-made muses, late-night subway rides and street-corner soft pretzels of downtown New York, so beautifully and so unself-consciously that the worry about the new, Daniel Lanois-produced work is that it might be too smooth. Too well-produced.

"We went into it saying we were going to co-produce," stresses Jill. "He wanted to do something totally new. He was ready for a different approach. Usually he has absolute control, but that wasn't the deal with us."

They did, however, allow Lanois to enlist the vocal contributions of friends Emmylou Harris and the Brand New Heavies' N'Dea Davenport.

"What they were doing on our record had nothing to do with what they had previously done," says Kate. "It was simply that their voices were right. We met N'Dea and she said she was a fan of our band. I don't think Emmylou knew us at all. My mum was a big fan of Emmylou. I was always aware of her look, that big grey hair. I thought that was really cool, especially on the Nashville country scene."

Fever in Fever out ended up being produced, half in Kate's loft apartment and partly in New Orleans. This might explain the hint of Doctor John's voodoo blues creeping in there. Jill agrees: "That was definitely a Doctor John colour to it. New Orleans is a unique experience. They have one of the highest unsolved murder rates in America. It's got a really corrupt police department and really corrupt politicians. And it's below sea level so that's why everyone is crazy."

Luscious Jackson are not, unlike English bands like Blur and Supergrass, interested in re-inventing themselves. Fever in, Fever out is a continuation of their very first statement of intent, but with more texture, which, for one of the most touchy-feely sounding bands around, is a fairly wondrous achievement n

'Fever in, Fever out' is released next week on Capitol records