With her recent track “Pussy Mask” reaching new absurdist heights, Peaches tells Alan Pedder about the how a year of the pandemic has challenged and changed her.
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  • Post published:30/04/2021
  • Post last modified:30/04/2021

It’s early afternoon on a hot summer’s day, and on a stage in the shadow of the Coney Island Cyclone a former schoolteacher dressed in scarlet lingerie rubs a microphone over her crotch.

At the side of the stage, someone is waving frantically in her direction, trying to get her attention. They are holding up a sign on which they’ve written, in urgently scrawled letters, two words: SAY GOODBYE. The woman in thigh-high stockings just ignores them; she knows her half hour isn’t up yet. Instead, she jumps on top of a speaker and starts to sing her big hit, the song the crowd is waiting for: “Suckin’ on my titties like you wanna be…” – then the mic gets cut and, for one split-second, everything goes quiet.

“They banned me in the middle of my set!” says Peaches, evidently still amused by the fact even after 20 years. We’re talking over Zoom – me from a small island in Sweden and she from the home in Berlin that she shares with her “quarantine and life partner” Ellison. “It was funny though, because they had an extra mic that they forgot to shut off so I picked up that one and told the crowd that I was being censored.” It turns out that some families visiting the Coney Island theme park were none too impressed with the festival outside. “Some mother marched over and said, ‘This woman is talking about sex and touching herself, and I’m trying to have a rollercoaster ride with my kids. Shut it down!’”

Peaches recounts this story not because she hasn’t told it before, but because she remembers it was at this festival that she first met and formed a friendship with Jack White. It was July 2001 and The White Stripes’ breakthrough album White Blood Cells had only been out for a couple of weeks. The band was already at the centre of a major label bidding war, while Peaches had not long signed a big-budget deal with Sony after the success of The Teaches Of Peaches. That deal notoriously soured very quickly when the label realised quite who and what they were dealing with. As Peaches has often said since, “I didn’t want to move towards the mainstream, I wanted the mainstream to move towards me.” And if the mainstream wasn’t ready for her Rapunzel-proportioned pubic hair in the fantastically queer, orgiastic video for “Set It Off”, well, the mainstream could politely go fuck itself. Sony apparently asked for a refund.

The White Stripes signed to XL Recordings a couple of months later, and it’s been said that Jack White had a hand in encouraging the label to also seek out Peaches, who needed a new home for her music. XL played their hand well, giving The Teaches Of Peaches a renewed international push that cemented its status as a stone-cold feminist classic. The label went on to release her next three albums – Fatherfucker (2003), Impeach My Bush (2006) and I Feel Cream (2009) – each in their own way as much outrageous fun as the first. Since then Peaches has been releasing music on her own I U She label, but for her latest single ‘Pussy Mask’ she’s teamed up with Third Man Records – run, of course, by none other than Jack White.

“Jack and I have wanted to do something together for a while,” says Peaches. “Some people might think it’s funny, because it seems like an odd pairing. Third Man is usually more rock and roll and they don’t really put out a lot of electronic music, so maybe some of their audience has been confused by it. But I think the label like that, and you know I do.” Given that the limited run of 7” picture discs sold out of all 500 copies in a matter of days, despite not being released until June, I think it’s fair to say that the collaboration has been a success. She grins. “It’s been great. The label does fantastic work, and it’s been a lot of fun. I’m glad that people are enjoying the single. I hope I can get a copy for myself!”

For those who have not yet had the pleasure, “Pussy Mask” is Peaches at her absurdist best, creating a “pussy pandemic” world of runaway squirting vaginas with a social conscience. In the accompanying video directed by filmmaker and animator Leah Shore, an adorable Furby-like pussy breaks free from Peaches’ body, pulls on a face mask, and runs riot through one hilarious scene after another. Squelching all over the screen with other pussies of all colours, the video also features a sassy sausage dog, a scurry of grey squirrels, and special guest appearances by an animated Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RIP), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and US chief medical advisor Dr Anthony Fauci.

Peaches and Shore have known each other for some years, having been introduced through a 2015 project for JASH TV. Peaches had recorded audio for a short film, riffing on her colourful history of sketchy as fuck roommates, and Shore had been chosen to animate it. “Her animation was just so perfect,” says Peaches. “The humour and the style really worked well so I’ve always had it in mind to do something else with her. I trusted her.” With only the lyrics and a loose brief to work from (essentially, “make it more metal”), Shore outlined a storyboard for the video in just two days and Peaches signed it off right away. “Her ideas were already perfect,” she says. “The way Leah just took the song to another level is amazing. It’s the best thing to work with people who understand the humour in what I’m doing, but also have such a great sense of humour themselves.”

Some of Peaches’ favourite moments from the video are the “Pussy gets credit” scene, where our dripping heroine gets a screen full of rolling titles; the part where Pussy slaps a yammering, cop-calling Karen; the dachshund in a stroller who intervenes when Pussy’s face mask gets a bit too soggy – who else but Peaches could come up with a couplet like “Pussy wear a mask in public / squirt so wet I gotta double it”? – and of course the thrash metal poses thrown by Shore’s AOC and Fauci. It might be too great a stretch to think that Dr Fauci might be a ‘Pussy Mask’ fan, but AOC seems kind of a shoe-in. So far, the congresswoman has sadly kept schtum. “I’m sure she’s just enjoying it in secret, right?” says Peaches.

If you’re not quite ready to hear an irreverent take on a pandemic that’s still very much at large, Peaches understands. Her intention with the song is to “shine some light into our dark, confusing, and frustrating reality”, and with fleshy punk humour is as good a way as any. We are already in a ridiculous situation, unprecedented in our lifetimes, so who’s to say what’s more absurd? Perhaps to emphasise that point, ‘Pussy Mask’ references Donald Trump’s insane bleach injection gaffe from the early days of the pandemic. That was real life, folks (*eternal scream emoji*). In any case, the song has other strings to its air guitar besides Covid-19, with references to voting rights, the Capitol Hill insurrection, Amy Coney Barrett’s contentious appointment to the Supreme Court, and the ever-threatened Roe v. Wade abortion ruling – also the subject of a recent Peaches-starring remake of Amanda Shires’ “Our Problem”, to mark the ruling’s 48th year since passing into law.

“I’ve been questioning everything about my normal way of writing. Like, what does it mean? What do I mean? What is going on and how are these things exacerbated by the pandemic?”

With only ten weeks between the shocking scenes in Washington DC and the release of “Pussy Mask”, the project came together quickly. Peaches had been writing on and off for her next album, but like many artists she has struggled to separate what is relevant now from what might still be relevant post-pandemic. One reason why the flu pandemic of 1918-1920 never really gained all that much cultural currency might be that people were just simply sick of that shit once it was finally over – and who right now could blame them? “Writing for the album has been a lot, with everything going on,” says Peaches. “I’ve been questioning everything about my normal way of writing. Like, what does it mean? What do I mean? What is going on and how are these things exacerbated by the pandemic? It was hard. So when I came up with this line about a pussy that needs to wear a mask, it was so absurd and also so right now that I knew it couldn’t wait.”

There’s nothing like a pandemic to teach us about missed opportunities. Perhaps the worst and most inevitable thing to come out of this prolonged nightmare is the failure of the world as a whole to get to grips with this virus and work together for the common greater good. Peaches has been thinking about this a lot. “I feel like there’s been a lot of times during the pandemic when, even if we’re not all going through exactly the same thing, we’ve had the same basic concerns about public health and well-being but different sides still haven’t been able to find a way to connect,” she says. “It’s been just another way to polarise people.”

Of course, Peaches has a history of polarising people herself, though not necessarily on purpose or in ways she had foreseen. “Even when I started out, people had so many different opinions about me. Like, I was a feminist; I wasn’t a feminist; I was obsessed with sex; I wasn’t sexy at all; I was super angry; I was too funny. I was like, ‘Wow, how can all these super opposing things come from one direct line from me?’” Indeed, part of the narrative of The Teaches Of Peaches is how many people actually didn’t get it, hated to see it, and weren’t shy about expressing it. And that was all pre-social media; in today’s online comment section hellscape, people are more vocal with their bad takes than ever.

In many ways, how people react to Peaches says a lot more about them than it does about her music and the way she chooses to present it. Online and in the press, she’s been a target for sexism, ageism, antisemitism; at shows she’s been pelted with beer cans – sometimes empty, sometimes still full – and, horrifically, even had lit cigarettes thrown at her back. But Peaches has just kept on being her unapologetically sexual, political, endlessly creative, and – key to all this – vulnerable self. Though at the time she made a choice to not make a talking point of it, The Teaches Of Peaches is at its core a divorce record, and all the sadness, rage and emptiness of that fact ekes out of the songs in different ways. The album’s roots may have been in the cold, sometimes silly artifice of electroclash but Peaches gave it just the right amount of warmth – or, in the words of Yoko Ono, “strength without trying” – to make it feel more personal.

Arguably it’s this dual quality of vulnerability and strength that has kept Peaches in the game for over twenty years. For me, the penny dropped on this in 2012 when I went to the London premiere of Peaches Does Herself, the high-concept, semi-autobiographical concert film she directed and starred in. A friend of a friend worked as art director on the project, so I knew it would be visually arresting, but I was not prepared for how much heart the film had or how much it changed my perspective on her music and her art. I had danced to “Fuck The Pain Away” a thousand times in clubs, seen Peaches DJ and play live, but clearly there was something I had missed; by emphasising fuck, pain had gone under the radar.

I think by now we’ve all grown out of the collective notion that pain is a necessity for art, but the intersection of the two will always hold a certain fascination. It remains entirely true, though, that you never really know what someone else is going through. And it’s in the spirit of sharing and healing that Peaches has spent several months during the pandemic collaborating with “fluid futurist” NYC duo Pussykrew to create Fill The Whole, an online gaming experience described as an “experimental exercise in self-love and acceptance” with sound design and music by Peaches.

“It’s like a guide to mental health, in a way,” she says. “We were wondering, what do we really want to do a game about? We were also thinking about how Pussykrew do all this work in their field and I do all this work in mine, and there’s still such a huge layer of patriarchal seams above us. So we just wanted to make sure the experience to be very us and very open. Not about violence, not about points, and not about hypersexual roles; there’s no game value to it in that way.”

Commissioned for this year’s edition of CTM Festival, a major event in Berlin’s busy arts calendar since 1999, Fill The Whole is an evolving work. There are currently two levels to access, with a third coming soon. “At the beginning you can go in and talk with these non-playable avatars who are obviously stuck in their own anger and their own behaviours, and then slowly move up to higher levels through pausing and reflecting,” says Peaches. In the first level, named after the song ‘I Mean Something’ (featuring former roommate Feist) from her 2015 album Rub, your chosen avatar can run through or explore in slo-mo, collecting peaches with a small-p in the bulbous Sensuality Landscape, before meeting Peaches in her final form as highly-evolved being. “Namaste,” says the goddess, her many limbs waving. “And welcome to the guided meditation into your groin.”

The second level, Meta Metta, is a different experience altogether. Mostly it’s Peaches’ disembodied voice confessing to doubts and anxieties and sharing advice on how to conquer pain and negativity. An excerpt: “I beat myself up all the time. I tell myself bullshit all the time. And the minute I wake up, I tell myself, ‘You’re doing something wrong. What are you doing? Why are you still in bed? What are you doing lying around? You should get up. You should be doing something. Go outside. Take a walk. Why don’t you read something? Why don’t you learn something?’ And this is still when I’m in bed. I haven’t even had a chance to get up, to take a few breaths, to say good morning to myself. ‘Good morning, Peaches’. I don’t say that to myself. I don’t even open my eyes. I just tell myself, ‘What the hell are you doing?’”

“I worry that you’re thinking, ‘Ooh Peaches has gone soft,’” goes another in-game monologue, but she needn’t be concerned. This is not the Peaches we are used to but it’s the Peaches we deserve. In parallel with developing the project, Peaches has been working on her own mental health and trying to learn how to be on pause. “I feel very lucky and privileged to not have been threatened in a survival sense by the pandemic, but it has been stressful,” she says. “Not economically, but just realising how much I’ve been fuelled by always just moving around. This is probably the longest time I’ve spent in one place for the past 20 years. I’ve learned that pausing is not easy for me. It can really bring up a lot of anxiety, as it has done this year, so I’ve been trying to work with that. It’s an ongoing process, trying to figure out where I flare up and what triggers it, but it’s important work.”

Even before the pandemic slammed the brakes on all our lives, Peaches received bad news from New York when her big sister Suri was diagnosed with cancer. Their father had died a little over a year before, of a different form of cancer, so this latest blow must have seemed especially unfair. Although Suri came through the treatment successfully and the cancer remitted, she later contracted pneumonia and passed away in November. Peaches was able to be by her side, having obtained the necessary permits to travel and quarantined accordingly. “I was lucky to be able to get the paperwork to fly to the States from Berlin and be there before she passed away,” she says. “I am so grateful for that. My mother was able to come from Canada, so I also had the blessing of being able to see her, but of course it was very tough.”

Funerals have been particularly hard for everyone during the pandemic due to distancing and other restrictions, but being forced to hold memorials online had one unexpected upside. “Something that was really beautiful happened,” says Peaches. “We come from Jewish tradition, so we would normally have a shiva over seven days where people would come and sit with us and share stories about the person who has died. But because of the pandemic we held three different memorials over Zoom, with 30–60 people each, and everybody listened to each other, everybody spoke. That would not happen if we were in a room together; people would just be talking to each other in small groups or get distracted by food and not pay attention. So I think it was really helpful, really powerful, to be able to listen to everybody.”

Peaches gives major props to her partner Ellison for helping her get through such a difficult year, not only providing emotional support but stirring up her creative spirit. A musician and artist in his own right, often under the name Black Cracker, Peaches describes him as “a jack of all trades, somebody who’s able to do almost anything”. They’ve worked together for some years now, on projects ranging from a staging of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Deutsche Oper to the installation of Whose Jizz Is This?, Peaches’ huge multimedia sex toy art show in Hamburg. “He’s really very creative and sensitive to whatever the work calls for. He just doesn’t always like to get credited.”

Now that ‘Pussy Mask’ is out, Peaches intends to get back to work on the album in May, though she doesn’t anticipate that it will be done at least until next year. After years of renting apartments in Berlin, she and Ellison have finally bought a place in a converted warehouse and are in the process of renovating it, which always takes much longer than one thinks. There have been whispers that the album will be darker, go a bit harder and sound more epic than before. She’s been listening to a lot of hardcore female rappers, which could provide a clue (“I’m obsessed with their directness and that it’s become such a developed genre in such an awesome way”), but Peaches isn’t ready to nail down any sort of description just yet. “I’m just experimenting right now, with some classic styles of mine and then other stuff that I’ve always wanted to try. Maybe they’ll work, maybe they won’t, and do I even care if they don’t? I’m lucky, I don’t really have to adhere to anyone’s ideas of what I should be doing. I’m just gonna do what the fuck I want.”

Coronavirus restrictions in Germany look set to stay in place for some weeks more while the vaccination rollout continues, and then begins the slow process of (hopefully) getting back to normal. “I think this period of reintegration is going to be the strangest time,” says Peaches. “But once it’s all over I’m just gonna get back out there and be close to and enjoy the people I want to enjoy in groups.

“But only when it’s safe, when it’s really, really safe. I don’t want to be part of perpetuating any sort of public health situation!” – of course not, what would Pussy say?

“Pussy Mask” is out now via Third Man Records with vinyl editions to follow on 25 June 2021

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