Lez Miserable: the teaches of Peaches

Eleanor Margolis meets the high-priestess of sexually charged punk electronica and singer of <em>Fuck the Pain Away</em>, <em>Diddle My Skittle</em> and <em>Tent in Your Pants</em>.

On stage, Peaches, the 46-year-old high priestess of sexually charged punk electronica, is wearing a ruff of oversized breasts with Barbie heads for nipples. She sits, open-legged, as two female dancers in their knickers, one sporting a goat mask, the other a unicorn, simulate cunnilingus on her. As the singer of Fuck the Pain Away, Diddle My Skittle and Tent in Your Pants, she is surprisingly reticent when I ask her, just the day before her gig at the O2, if she’s ever wondered what the most perverted act performed to her music might be. “No, I’ve never thought what it is. But I imagine it was pretty filthy,” she says, with an almost nervous laugh.

The artist who provided the soundtrack to my teenage sexual fumblings is sitting opposite me outside the BFI bar, dressed in black and looking unassuming. Her outsized sunglasses highlight her gamine, sparrow-like features and she reminds me of a riot grrrl Edith Piaf. Currently on tour, promoting her film – Peaches Does Herself – the musician/director is chatting excitedly about the autobiographical rock opera, which recently made its UK debut at London Sundance.

“I’d describe it as an anti-jukebox musical,” she says. A reaction against We Will Rock You-style musicals, Peaches Does Herself uses the artist’s music to tell her own life story, rather than a completely unrelated, irrelevant narrative. “I like the music of Queen, but once you put it in a jukebox musical, you have nothing to do with Freddie Mercury. It’s lame.”

“I am a fan of the style of opera where you can tell a complete story just through the music and through the songs,” she says. In making Peaches Does Herself, Peaches set herself the challenge using the songs from her four albums to create an autobiographical narrative. The result is a brilliantly freaky pornographic ballet. As it happens, one of the leading roles is played by trans porn star Danni Daniels, who used to be a professional ballet dancer. As you’d expect from a film heavily influenced by 70s musicals like Rocky Horror, Tommy and Phantom of the Paradise, it’s gender-bending, glam and utterly Dionysian. I ask Peaches if she was also inspired by cult director John Waters. “You’re probably referring to Sandy Kane as the quintessential John Waters character,” she says. Indeed I am. Stripper turned comedienne Sandy Kane plays Peaches’ foul-mouthed, slightly wicked, fairy godmother.

So how did a nice Jewish girl from Toronto become alternative music’s doyenne of dirty? After all, the only echo of Jewish culture I can find in Peaches’ music is the rhyming of “menorah” with “labia majora” in the song I’m The Kinda.“My parents were quite liberal people, but we did grow up with two sets of cutlery.” Peaches, who was born Merrill Beth Nisker, is referring to the Jewish kashrut rule about using separate cutlery for meat and dairy. But was she ever a “nice Jewish girl”? “No,” she says laughing, “I was spaced out, that’s for sure. I would deliberately space out in Hebrew class because I didn’t understand why I had to learn this language. I would occupy my mind with other things.” Peaches found little outlet for her creativity at school and disliked the fact that music and plays were used purely to impress the parents. “I didn’t get why we weren’t learning to sing – just told to sing and if you get it wrong, you’re dead in the bath.”

“I didn’t realise you could be a musician,” says Peaches, “And I didn’t really know about art. I have a great family and intelligent parents, but they weren’t passionate about art. They listened to Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond.” Originally drawn to theatre, rather than music, “That’s what creativity was to me,” Peaches studied theatre direction at university and began a career as a theatre director. “Then I took acid one day and said, ‘I don’t want to do this,’” Peaches explains, “I thought by the time I turned 30 I’d have a nervous breakdown or something. Working with actors and sets, and yelling at people – it just seemed like too much to handle.”

“I fell into music really,” she says of her sudden career change, “I started playing it. I had one gig with my girlfriend, we played acoustic guitar. They liked us in this club and asked us to play there every week.” Peaches, then still Merrill, started out as a folk singer in Toronto. Enjoying writing songs and the immediacy of music, compared to theatre, she broke away from folk, “I was playing acoustic guitar and I was like – why am I doing that?” and entered an experimental phase. Her first band was called Fancypants Hoodlum: “I would sing crazy. I knew a guy who played bongos, so I asked him to be my drummer, I knew another guy who played weird EBow guitar.” Her next band, The Shit, was formed when she began jamming with fellow Canadian musicians Mocky and Gonzales. “We’d just sing songs that we’d spontaneously write in the room, about each other, about wanting to fuck each other, or whatever.” Were these jamming sessions drug-fuelled? “Just pot,” she says.

Soon after forming The Shit, Merrill Nisker became Peaches. She named herself after a character in the song Four Women, by Nina Simone. So is Peaches her Ziggy Stardust-esque alter ego? “No, I’d say more an extension of me,” she says, “I love Bowie and I love everything that he’s done for culture and music… but I feel I relate more to someone like Iggy Pop.” Peaches collaborated with Iggy on her 2003 single, Kick It, which was the first song of hers I ever heard. As a sexually confused 14-year-old, Peaches’ clever, fiercely erotic lyrics scratched an itch. A very itchy itch. As an outsider at school, her music reminded me that being different was badass. So, how does she feel to be a role model to young queers? “I just feel responsibility to be myself and I hope I can inspire people to continue to be who they need to be.”

Since releasing her debut solo album, The Teaches of Peaches, in 2000, attitudes towards her brand of sexually-liberated electro-rock have certainly changed. With artists like Lady Gaga, arguably a diluted version of Peaches, hitting the mega-mainstream, has what Peaches does become less edgy? “I’m not trying to be shocking. I’m glad that I can be mainstream and still be who I am – I don’t have a problem with that.” But Peaches feels that attitudes are becoming simultaneously more open and more closed – “I think there are just more people,” she says, “There are Mormons. And they’re growing too. Everything’s growing.

I ask Peaches if she feels that women in music have a responsibility to push feminist ideals. What of mainstream female artists like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift, who are openly ambivalent towards feminism? “I think that’s dangerous,” she says, “I mean, what do people think feminism is? Feminism means equal pay for men and women. I just think people should realise that all women are feminists and there’s no way around that.”

When members of that standard bearer for musical feminism, Pussy Riot, were jailed last year, Peaches quickly became a loud voice in the call for their release. I ask her what drew her to the cause. “It’s a suffocating, horrible situation for women and artists in Russia,” she says, “they’re bringing attention to it and by this they are the essence of art.” What’s more, Peaches, who lives in Berlin these days, feels that, had she been born in Russia, she would probably would have been involved in something like Pussy Riot: “I was like – I need to support this, because this could’ve been me.” She is still in contact with some of the band members and met up with Katya Samutsevich, who was released from prison in October last year, in Moscow earlier this year. “She’s just an incredibly brave person.”

“It’s grim,” she says of the situation of the two Pussy Riot members still in prison, “They don’t give you medicine if you’re sick. They have to get permission to get outside medication. And it’s inhuman labour work that they’re doing.” At the O2 the next day, Peaches ends her gig with the song she wrote for the band and has the crowd chanting, “free Pussy Riot!”

So what’s next for Peaches? Despite the release of the single Burst, last year, she tells me that there isn’t an album on the way. “I’m just making music and seeing what I like,” she says. She tells me about her recent collaboration with burlesque performer Empress Stah, a song called Light In Places You Didn’t Know It Could Shine, about a laser butt plug. Noticing my bewilderment, she explains that this is an object used in Empress Stah’s performances. Only Peaches could make me feel silly for not knowing why a person would want to shoot a laser out of their arse.

A still from the film Peaches Does Herself.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism