by Duncan Bell, Muzik, No. 67, December 2000, p. 52. Photography: Andy Fallon.
You think Underworld are wide-ranging multi-media bods? Think again. From music to fashion to 'proper' art to, er, font design, Berlin's Chicks On Speed have it covered.
Arriving in Berlin is like touching down on the letter R in the middle of the word ART. In the city's Mitte district, where Muzik has come to hang out with Chicks On Speed, you can't discharge a shotgun without hitting an avant garde musician, artist, promoter or owner of a bar with black walls, full of musicians, artists and promoters.
But we are not here to discharge shotguns. We're here to meet fashion/music/art perverters, Chicks On Speed. Alex, Kiki and Melissa -- from Sydney, upstate New York and Munich, respectively -- are the latest out-of-town additions to Berlin's ever expanding music scene. Jamie Lidell of Super_Collider and Canadian hip hop filth-pigs Peaches and Gonzales are also recent immigrants.
"Chicks On Speed's goal is to infiltrate all facets of life," announces Melissa as the Chicks prepare costumes for the Muzik photoshoot at COS HQ (Alex's flat near Rosenthaler Platz). "We are genius dilettantes," adds Kiki. These Chicks mean business. If you're shallow, you may have read some kind of veiled drugs reference into Chicks On Speed's name. But during the course of Muzik's stay it becomes apparent that far from alluding to the teeth grinding powder, it actually refers to their work ethic. Working fast both as necessity -- they didn't get round to completing the costumes until about 10 minutes before the shoot -- and as statement on intent.
"You often see designers, or musicians who have been to art school for six years and their spontaineity is gone. They get moulded too much," explains former Vogue stylist Kiki. "It's often a shame. We believe in working fast and just doing it."
This applies as much to their music as to their fashion. Their debut album, Will Save Us All is a series of collaborations with producers. Chicks On Speed suggest musical ideas and write the lyrics, but the music is largely written by the producers. It's an approach that has attracted criticism from an indie crowd obsessed with 'playing your own instruments'. You know -- like Chas and Dave do.
"We are not interested in virtuosity," explains Kiki. "The producers we work with have been doing it for years, so they can work magic in, like, 10 minutes," Melissa adds. "It's like we'd have to spend 10 years learning to be that good, so what's the point?"
Besides, this approach leaves time for all Chicks On Speed's other activities.
"We're developing a laptop bag at the moment," Alex offers, while frantically screen printing the mammoth, 'two person' tube dress that is their latest fashion line. "Music is our priority, but we like to do five things at once. We're contributing an installation to a festival in Lisbon called The New Society Of The Spectacle, and we're contributing art to a book for the MAMA gallery in Holland."
"We've designed a font, too," Melissa adds.
There's also a web site (where said font can be viewed) which takes a thoughtfully twisted approach to the medium, typical of the Chicks' way doing things.
"We looked at the internet and it's always so clean and functional, so we decided to make a messy, dysfunctional room," Melissa explains.
Pulling your browser around the scrolling collage that makes up their home page causes links to pop up which may take you to Chicks info or their on-line shop, where clothes, records and other merchandise can be purchased. Then again, they may take you to an image of an animated frog... Er, what?
"The programmer got really depressed because people couldn't work out how to use the site," Melissa remembers. "But that's just people being lazy. It's good to challenge people a little bit."
Little in Berlin is obvious. You have to walk through a car park and a bombed out squat to get to the average park, club or gallery. Which will then have no indication of what is on the exterior. So it is apt that the Chicks' approach is obfuscatory. It challenges you to work with it. To make your own mind up what it means.
And though they might, tongue-in-cheek, call themselves dilettantes, don't get the impression Chicks On Speed are pissing about. In their own ramshackle way they're very professional and VERY serious. The album's done about 20,000 copies worldwide, And their clothes should get a wider audience next year.
"We've been given a shop window for [swank Paris department store] Bon Marché," announces a slightly incredulous Melissa.
"Who else is there again?" Kiki ponders. "It's Comme Des Garçons and Yohji Yamamoto, I think."
But fear not -- they may be rubbing shoulder pads with the fashion ponceratti, but the art-pranking continues. Like with their line of 'Modifidas' trainers. As the name suggests, they're elaborate modifications/butcherings of a well known manufacturer's sporting wares. Quite what Terry Farley will make of them is anybody's guess. Quite what the original manufacturer will make of them is anybody's guess, too. There's also the first mass-produced Chicks product: very small shopping bags, "because everything is getting smaller."
Determined to take this fashionista guerilla approach to the streets, Muzik and COS head for Alexanderplatz. It's the largest square in east Berlin, replete with a huge, communist chic TV aerial like a secular muezzin calling the unfaithful to prayer. Alex and Melissa don the double ended tube dress while Kiki wields a pair of scissors menacingly. Within moments a crowd has gathered. Some sit down and snap away happily with disposable cameras, others adopt the traditional German stone-face. Others react as if a Martian invasion is going on. "Move your arms! It's disgusting!" one man orders, perplexingly. All in all, the shoot is a rip-roaring success; Chicks On Speed bringing style to the masses.
The Berlin underground is going overground. You read it here first.
Will Save Us All LP and 'Chix 52' EP are out now on Chicksonspeed Records.
See www.chicksonspeed.com for details of records, clothes and animated frogs.
Chicks On Speed, Europe's leading couturiers, unblinker their 'fashion eye' to give preceptive views and helpful advice to some of dance-land's snappiest dressers.
[from the top:]
SUBLIMINAL'S ERICK MORILLO AND MUZIK's RALPH MOORE
"Very homoerotic. It's a sort of 'pair' look. I think maybe Ralph shouldn't wear the cut out sleeves -- longer sleeves would suit him better..."
"They use lots of feline prints as well, don't they? These hairdos are quite good, I think. I don't like the silver they put on their faces, though...!"
"The last time I saw her she said her hotpants hadn't been washed since she bought them... and that's what they looked like. It's a good look, sort of offensive, sexual."
"Very stylish. He's wearing Paul Smith, I think. He's gay, isn't he? No? Oh. I don't know if I like his chain, then. It's the sort of thing only gay men would wear in Germany."
"Mmmm... I don't like this particularly. It's too clean for my taste. Everything matches too well in a way. She'd look good in one our tube dresses, though, I think."
"He likes the sort-of truck driver look, doesn't he? Do we do outsize men's wear? Not yet. We have to look into it, but I don't think Dave would look good in one of our outfits."
Copyright © 2000 Muzik. Reprinted with permission.