by Douglas Wolk, Spin, December 2000, p. 180
Chicks on Speed are a throwback to when "punk" was as much about subversive art as about three-chord shout-alongs. But their DIY electronica definitely rocks. Meet the digital Riot Grrrls.
The crowd at the Sonar electronic music festival, held in Barcelona in June, can't expect to see much more than a few dozen sun-starved geeks slouching over their PowerBooks. It's a given that, as a spectator sport, watching most electronica artists at work is right up there with watching dust settle. So the effect is dramatic when Chicks on Speed hit the stage: three brash young women who use Cracker's "Euro Trash Girl" as a rallying cry and drop rhymes about photographer Cindy Sherman over MiniDisc beats that are half prefab house, half white noise.
Like Britain's Ladytron and Lolita Storm, America's Le Tigre, and fellow German Hanin Elias, the Berlin-based Chicks have hijacked electronica from both the Ecstasy-addled clubbers and the mute basement abstractionists to make a gritty, feminist, DIY brand of synth-pop for a new generation. To paraphrase the old wave maxim, it's as if they're saying, "Fuck dance, let's art!"
Chicks on Speed write songs that are both brainy and cheeky. But their concerts also echo early punk rock's commitment to art-as-subversion. Like a Dada set piece, their stage is crammed with projections of magazine articles about the group, a paper house, wooden sculptures, video images, and life-size cutouts of the Chicks themselves. During a "commercial break," there's even a costume change, at which point the Chicks switch from homemade paper frocks to homemade white leather dresses.
If it sounds more like a performance art that music, there's a reason. In 1997, expatriate New Yorker Melissa Logan met up with Alex Murray-Leslie, an Australian, and Kiki Moorse, the group's only native German, at a Munich art school. They eventually transplanted their exercises from the classroom to the recording studio.
The Chicks' reputation rests as much on their spazzy cut-and-paste graphic design as on their cut-and-paste music. Several galleries have exhibited their installations (like "Boob Monster," a cloth creature made out of dozens of photos of breasts), and they'll have a large-scale interactive piece, "My Messy Room," at this year's Lisbon Film Destival. Following in the footsteps of punk couturiers Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, they're even reaching into fashion, designing tube dresses they plan to sell in their online store.
"Every tube can fit everybody," Murray-Leslie says. "They're screen-printed with all the hype that's been written about us, and then there's sewn-on bits as well. And they come in different colors!"
Like some of their punk precursors, one thing the Chicks don't actually do much is play instruments. Murray-Leslie explains, "We are the idea, we are the concept, we are the frontpeople. But we're a produced band." So who's actually composing the tunes? Mostly, it's the leading lights of the European experimental-electronics scene. Ramon Bauer of the ultra-highbrow Mego label recently produced a set of covers for the Chicks -- including their hilarious cyborgs-on-the-rampage version of the B-52's' "Give Me Back My Man" -- and they've also worked with serious digital sound designers like Florian Hecker and techno-minimalist Gerhard Potuznik. But Chicks on Speed use this input as raw material, not finished product. They dice the vocals, fracture the rhythms, and mix it up with cheesy house grooves. The result? Cheap, trashy, very smart, very funny pop. One critic called it "fake music." It was meant -- and taken -- as a compliment.
In keeping with their efforts to confuse and confound, the Chicks' debut album comes in two different flavors. Chicks on Speed Will Save Us All! (Chicks on Speed Records) is a relatively straightforward 43-minute string of herky-jerky dance songs and art-disco covers. The other version of the album is The Un-Releases. Soon to appear as their American debut (deftly titled The Re-Releases of the Un-Releases), it's a garbled sampling of the same material, studded with with prefab heavy metal, random sound bites, and the Chicks chanting over hyper-minimal Pan Sonic beats. Murray-Leslie says, "We wanted to please everybody."
Well, maybe not everybody. But even their detractors respect their volcanic energy. "I quite like Chicks on Speed," muses Romy Medina of Lolita Storm, a breakbeat-driven British trio of shouters affiliated with Berlin's Digital Hardcore scene who tend to share press with the Chicks (three women, homemade costumes, punk attitude, electronic beats: You do the math). "I don't like their music. And I think they look terrible. But I like that they do their own thing. They're sort of like a rival gang to us."
"People think that we're a girl band, or a rock band in the usual sense," replies Kiki Moorse. "And they get really confused when they find out that we want to do everything.
Copyright © 2000 Spin. Reprinted with permission.