Chicks On Speed
by Piers Martin, The Face, Vol. 3, No 38, March 2000, p. 102
Need ideas? Radical art? Pop? Abrasive techno? Let Chicks On Speed be your salvation! "We may not have the answers," they declare, "but we do have the questions"
"This fashion editor in Italy who really loves what we do mailed us images of his work, styling stuff. Gosh, they were very S&M-like, with weird pictures of him in a bath with fake boobs and then other things like a guy naked with a fake metal finger!"
- Chick A, February 2000
Chicks On Speed make things happen. In December of last year, Chicks On Speed incited a mini riot in the Helsinki club in which they were playing: "People there got so into it they got on stage and took their trousers off! Like animals, totally!" On each occasion when they've visited London during the last six months, Chicks On Speed have been poorly seduced by several record companies, who like to feed them cake: "We have ten meetings in one day. 'Would you like some more cake?' That's what they say. 'No, we've already had five pieces today, thank you.'" And just this week Chicks On Speed won a prestigious international art prize courtesy of The Art Directors' Club Of New York for a poster, 'Mixer', which they designed. A nice surprise, given that they personally didn't even enter the competition.
In April, Chicks On Speed release an album on Chicks On Speed Records called Chicks On Speed Will Save Us All!. In a way, Chicks On Speed will save us all. From what? From whatever it is you want to be saved from. It's up to you. That's the beauty of it. This is how they saved themselves.
Cheap/Trash/Long arms/Funny legs/Entertain/Provocative/Talkative/Art school drop-out"
- 'Yes I Do!', Chicks On Speed
Melissa Logan, 29 and originally from New York, dropped out of the Munich School Of Art four years ago. She'd been studying painting there but became disillusioned with the "whole corporate gallery system" - "the problem was: who are you actually making the art for?" And anyway, by that stage she'd already met Alex Murray-Leslie, a jewellery design student from Sydney who came to Munich because of the art school's world-class reputation. Back then, little in Munich interested the girls, so they started organising events in the city's bars with their like-minded friend, Kiki Moorse, a fashion stylist from Munich whom Alex and Melissa met when she provided dance steps for the first Chicks On Speed video project in early 1997 ("no music, just imagery"). Says Alex: "Kiki had these amazing shoes and we were like, 'Oh my god, we have to join together". In the bars they'd show slides and their friends' Super-8 movies, spin records and have fun. "It was more about meeting people and communication," remembers Alex. It still is.
For money, the girls worked (and, when necessary, still do so today) as "art slaves" in the city's enormous Haus der Kunst museum, hanging works of art and shifting exhibits. Because they hated it, they worked quickly; they worked, someone remarked, "like chicks on speed".
Through these parties, the girls met people who liked their ideas. They met people like local techno superstar and owner of the International DeeJay Gigolo label, DJ Hell; and Munich's legendary one-man music industry, Upstart, who owns Disko B Records and runs the grim, great Ultraschall nightclub. They met musician and Tobi Neuman, who produced their first single, a warped, stripped-down cover of ancient electro anthem 'Warm Leatherette', that was to come out as a seven-inch in late 1997 on the Chicks' own Go Records (itself a subsidiary of Disko B). The B-side was a version of the same song by DJ Hell. The Chicks On Speed music project was underway!
Before that, there had been a multimedia art project called 'The Box Set', which was a box with a tape, a cardboard record, a T-shirt, a badge and a poster inside - "all the merchandising elements of a band" - and a performance/tape called 'I Wanna Be A DJ... Baby', which consisted of techno and disco hits spliced together badly while the girls pretended to be gorgeous, pouting DJs. Subversion on a small scale, but it was a start. For Melissa, Alex and Kiki, things were happening in Munich. In fact, things couldn't have happened in anywhere but Munich.
"I think there's a very laissez-faire attitude here in Bavaria. You can kind of do anything," reasons 33-year-old Kiki, touching her brown headscarf into shape in a Vietnamese restaurant in chilly, snow-covered Munich. Alex, Melissa and Tobi Neumann are also present, so it's sweet and sour fish soups all round. Kiki was born and raised in the city and before she became heavily involved with Chicks On Speed, worked as a stylist for a magazine called Miss Vogue. Of the three, she talks most sense.
"It would have been totally different if we had met in Berlin or Hamburg. A lot of those places you have to be completely political or completely something and if you don't fit in to a category you're not valid. And because we float so much between categories, what we do can only actually happen in Munich. But that also becomes annoying after a while."
The stance taken by Chicks On Speed is not completely unambiguous. Theirs is an indefinable stance where fine art, graphic design, rock'n'roll, the avant-garde, performance, politics, feminism, electronica, techno and consumerism collide, but where the communication of ideas, in whatever medium, is paramount. So just as they collaborate and exchange ideas with the cream of Europe's avant-techno militia - Christoper Just, Patrick Pulsinger, Gerhard Potuznik - on Chicks On Speed singles, so the girls write and sing their own "text" on albums by Church Of Euthanasia nutcase Chris Korda and Marseilles disco king David Carretta. Similarly, just as they make their own outfits from paper and leather and then post the designs on their website (chicksonspeed.com), so the Chicks set up a trading stall in the centre of Munich (and, recently, on the web) in a bid to ascertain the value of people's treasured possessions, such as passports and family photos. Nothing is ever sold. It's more like a social experiment: "We don't know how that can function, though, because people's personal needs are so different," Melissa says. "How do you know the value of things? You don't. But at least we've explored that."
If Melissa still lived in New York, Woody Allen would by now have cast her as the neurotic and wired young firebrand idealist in one of his movies. She studied art in a small university in New York, thought about going to Chicago, then decided on Munich. Her sister lives in LA and goes out with one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Melissa frequently says things like this, really fast: "And with the trading posts we were looking for freedom from working because if there's more bartering going on then you don't need so much money and if you don't need so much money then you don't need to work as much, so people wouldn't be caught in their nine-to-five jobs and having to make money."
Kiki sighs. "That's actually a pretty old Marxist idea, though, isn't it?"
Yeah. C'mon Chicks, we want NEW ideas!
In 2000, Chicks On Speed go global. They've already conquered the European underground with sporadic tours in Germany, France, Denmark, Finland, Scotland and England where their live shows - handmade costumes, no instruments, video projections, noise - have thrilled and baffled in equal measures. Their Go Records imprint has released five singles so far, from the chintzy house of 'Glamour Girl' to the cut-up, scuffed punk of 'Mind Your Own Business' to the minimalist electro noir of 'Euro Trash Girl' (a track Richard Fearless opened with on his recent Live At The Social mix CD), but these were limited vinyl-only releases. What they do musically is ostensibly very pop, but the culture in which they choose to work and the people they've so far collaborated with couldn't be more cutting-edge. When the Chicks arrive, the producers make a special effort and, indeed, a special music.
Hence the release later this month of Unreleases, an album of studio out-takes, radio interviews, jingles, live excerpts, random noise bursts and Chix tuneage scrambled into a 70-minute mix by Vienna sound scientists Gerhard Potuznik and Ramon Bauer. It was supposed to be The Album, but the group were so shocked with the result that they decided to compile a cleaner, more accessible album themselves. If you want the real picture, you need to get both records.
For another angle on Chicks On Speed, check their graphics: cut-up collages of everyday images and text and their own bodies. It's hardly a revolutionary new method of working, but it gives the record sleeves, posters, artworks, exhibitions and web pages they design a fierce, individual identity. (Fact: the people who design the Prodigy's website rang up and offered to design the Chicks' site. "We were like, 'No, we do our own'," smiles Alex.) An early poster, 'Credo', got them into trouble with the Arts Council of Munich, who had commissioned the work, because, says Alex, "they said it looked like a deformed child. But then they were cool about it." Nevertheless, the image (a face constructed with mismatched, ill-fitting facial fragments) still looks like that of a deformed child and it was funded by the local arts council. Which in an odd way is quite an achievement.
Recently they created a "psychologically fucked-up superhero" called Fenn'O'Berg (for the sleeve of the Fenn'O'Berg album, The Magic Sound Of Fenn'O'Berg, on Mego Records) who is "presently female" and has a "chewed-up lead pencil", which, explains Melissa, "is such an old-fashioned item and that it's chewed-up is symptomatic of psychological problems, which is very valid for these times." Fenn'O'Berg is a collaboration between three avant-electronica luminaries, Christian Fennesz, Jim O'Rourke and Peter Rehberg (hence the name), and the involvement of Kiki, Alex and Melissa in this project is typical of the Chicks' collaborative working methods. "I find collaborating more of a challenge actually," admits Alex, "because if you are getting ideas from ten different people together who are each coming from a different point then you'll go further in this process and it's more rewarding."
This is how Chicks On Speed make things happen. They bring the ideas and text and image - the drive - and the guys create music. That's the way it has worked so far, anyway, and, sure, it would be easy to sneer and note that Chicks On Speed are merely bringing an exciting, marketable image to a genre of music normally bereft of glamour. And in a fairly significant way, that's exactly what they are doing. Chicks On Speed as the acceptable face of underground avant-noise? Hey, why not? At the moment it's the guys who do the production largely because the producers the Chicks choose to work are a) men, and b) making some of the most thrilling music in the world today. But it's a symbiotic relationship: look what they did to their friend and producer, Tobi Neuman - they changed his life! "I've learned a new side of my talent," the sweet-natured father-of-one says. "They had me making music I never made before. And in a special way, in a very easy way. I love working for the Chicks!"
Alex Murray-Leslie - internet codename: Chick A - the tall, 29-year-old Australian with the ragged blonde helmet of hair, the permanent grin, and the sort of person who looks great no matter what clothes she wears (today: non-brand blue trainers, silky Japanese-style top and black cardigan), is negotiating her chicken and tofu noodle dish. She's looking tanned and healthy, having just arrived back from a month visiting her family Down Under for the first time in three years. Her father used to fly planes for Qantas; now he keeps bees in New Zealand and makes excellent honey. On her new duty-free-purchased electronic Palm notebook she has a list of things she wants to talk about but, like Chick M and Chick K, everything basically boils down to this: "Chicks On Speed is something that we have to do. The drive is that I wake up and I want to change things. Like this dissatisfaction that you have, which you can't define exactly, but you know you just want to make things... better."
"Yeah," Melissa says in her Noo Yawk drawl, "and religion can't do that. Even music's not enough."
"Yes, but music can help," Kiki reasons.
Melissa: "We want someone to save us."
Alex: "But we want to save the world as well. Maybe it's about exploring new ways of living... of trying to push society in a different way... We may not have the answers but we do have the questions."
Some people already know. Through their travels and the constant barrage of emails they receive, the girls realise that what they're doing is the right thing and that by trying to make a difference they've become a group you can believe in. And you can't say that about many bands these days.
"I think we are good roles models for young girls," reckons Kiki. "Yes girls! Follow us! And boys too!"
"The first time I ever experienced that," Melissa says, "was in this small town and there was this German-Turkish girl and she came up to me and said, 'Are you in Chicks On Speed?' - and nobody knew us at that time - and I was like, 'Yeah?', and she said, 'Thanks so much that you guys exist.' And then gave me a kiss on the cheek and that was the best moment. It gave me so much inspiration to think like, wow, this is really affecting people, and then there's a lot more demanded of you and you really push yourself a lot more also."
This year, stand back as Chicks On Speed make more things happen. (Or maybe don't stand back, maybe you get involved yourself - email them with ideas for new projects! Put on one of their shows in your town! Get your band to play with them!) Like Alex says: "We just do what we want to do - I don't know if we're breaking rules. Rules would make me really aggressive, if we had to comply. That's why we can't sign to some company because it's somebody else telling you what you have to do. We want to work our own way. We want to make our own rules."
The Chicks On Speed dream? To erect their own building in Berlin. The Chicks On Speed Building. "It'll be a meeting point for information," beams Alex. "Everyone can come there and have conferences and do music and art. It'll have a studio and a museum and a gallery and living spaces... it'll just have everything!"
"But first we need two worldwide hits, and then the building will be no problem at all," Tobi, the producer, suggests, pragmatically. "I wanna make two worldwide hits!"
"It might be interesting to say, 'Now we want to have a hit. We want to make a Number One,'" muses Alex. "But we haven't yet."
"It happens," says Tobi, "or it doesn't happen."
Watch Chicks On Speed make it happen.
Copyright © 2000 The Face. Reprinted with permission.