Merrill Nisker speaks with an easy, friendly, slightly nasally voice. The Toronto native taught kids, worked as a librarian, and tried her hand at theater. About six years ago, she sat down with some rudimentary musical and recording equipment and recorded a dozen songs about sex, power, and rock `n’ roll that turned the music industry on its ear.
Nisker had a name for her new digital-dominatrix self, taken from an old Nina Simone song. Today that’s how hundreds of thousands of people know her: As Peaches, the sometimes bearded, sometimes bikini-clad provocateur who has earned fans from Iggy Pop to Bjrk to Arthur Baker to Madonna.
In 2000, Peaches seemed like a singular phenomenon: a do-it-yourself techno diva with a sassy rap and hard rock attitude. She quickly accrued a whole scene (electroclash) and inspired a legion of followers. Now Peaches is, well, maybe not a movement but at least a band. On her third album, the summer release “ImPeach My Bush,” she moves away from electronic tools to work with analog amps and flesh-and-blood musicians.
“At the beginning it was just me,” she says on the phone. “Once that went out in the world, people really opened up to me. I feel like there is quite a community, it’s nice. Also, the people I’ve influenced have created their own communities too.”
Peaches doesn’t like to just jolt the prudes; she equally takes on the voyeurs, turning the tables on the usual objectification and fetishization. She’s a go-go girl with a loaded gun: her mouth. She’ll seduce you with her sexual openness, but don’t be surprised at what you find in her pants.
Of course, some viewers and listeners can’t get past the immediate visceral reaction to hearing a woman talk openly about body parts and what she likes to do with them.
“I’m more shocked by people’s reactions to what I do. What I see as giving energy, people see it as this weird, overtly sexual thing. The last interviewer I talked to was saying that people see what I do as being sexually open, whereas when a rapper does it, it’s a power thing. And I’m like, well why can’t it be a power thing with me? Maybe I want that.”
Let there be no mistake: Whether she’s singing about oral pleasures in a high disco voice in “Downtown” or miming metal moves in “Rock the Shocker,” Peaches is all about power. From the moment she first decided to pleasure herself with a mike, guitar and drum machines in her bedroom, her music and act have been all about appropriating phallocentrism - and bringing the focus back to Peaches. Although she was surprised at how listeners connected to her songs.
“Even with (debut album) `The Teaches of Peaches,’ I really just thought I was making an album in my bedroom and thinking about things I wanted to hear. I had no idea that the minute I put it out there, initially the first people that came back to me were pretty high profile, just out of nowhere.”
Nisker says that Peaches is not so much an alter ego as a channel for ideas that had previously not found a form of expression.
“I just thought it would be cooler to use an alias name. I wasn’t thinking of a whole persona. When I started I would play with my pants undone just cause I thought it was funny. I really have a lot of performance energy, so I wasn’t just going to hold back for the sake of it. I have a lot of experience in theater. What I wanted theater to be was immediate reactions to performances, and that never was. But it’s really much easier to do through music.”
When “Teaches” was released, Nisker had relocated to Berlin, where she still lives. But somehow, songs like “AA XXX” and “Diddle My Skiddle” made Peaches the queen of a Brooklyn scene. Electroclash was the name of a party devoted to music that flaunted gender and genre standards and became the name of a musical scene. Unfortunately, it reduced the works of brave innovators to a trend.
`The title superceded the actual music. Different people find the meaning of electroclash in different ways. When you just use it as mixing up different genres, that’s cool. But when people talk about it as this trashy music that never was trying to be its own thing, I’m like: no. I just wanted to mix up music, all different kinds, and put together my favorite parts of rock riffs and hip-hop choruses and rock `n’ roll attitude and electronic new sounds.”
Peaches followed with the punk-rock middle-finger-extended `03 release whose name can’t be printed here: Let’s just say it reverses the gender of a familiar expletive. The cover showed Nisker looking like a Mormon, with full beard (and mascara). It included “Kick It,” a duet with Iggy Pop, and her command to “Back It Up, Boys.”
“(The album) was a reaction to everything that happened to Teaches of Peaches,” says Peaches.
The new album opens with an attack on the current administration’s policies on gay marriage and war in Iraq that explains the CD’s title. Peaches sounds comfortable in her role as leader. She has gathered her troops around her, enlisting such musicians as Janis Joplin-esque Gossip singer Beth Ditto and rock legend Joan Jett. She still pushes the envelope musically and lyrically; for instance, she reverses the usual male fantasy on the song “Two Guys (for Every Girl).”
“I see `ImPeach My Bush’ as more like a social album, as including everybody. You either know me or not. If you’re not with me, then impeach my bush: Censor me if you want, but I’m still here. That’s why I have a lot of collaborators and a band. It’s not just my bandwagon anymore.”