Sisters gonna work it out

by Jason Jenkins

There was a time when radio in the United States was full of surprises — a time when catchy, clever tunes were just a turn of the dial away. Pop music carried less baggage then, before marketing and demographics moved in and warped station programming into socio-economic formulas.

Scott Hoffman remembers those days when pop had universal appeal and Dolly Parton, Hall & Oates and The Cure could be played back-to-back on a single station. Now he believes the heyday is gone. “I’ve given up on radio,” he says with a laugh.

His band, Scissor Sisters, can claim piano anthems, glam rock and disco as influences, but most people hear echoes of the radio of yore: solid musicianship, melodic hooks and witty lyrics that would stay with you well after the commercial break. So why aren’t Scissor Sisters dominating American airwaves? “[U.S.] radio is so locked into a format now,” says Hoffman, “and they just don’t know what to do with us.”

That might be an easy excuse for aspiring bands, but Scissor Sisters aren’t exactly coming in on the ground floor. Consider their resume thus far: Their self-titled debut was the biggest seller in the U.K. last year, with over 1.8 million copies sold and counting. The quintet is also the only band to have four singles in the British Top 20 simultaneously (that’s five, if you count the cowriting credit for Kylie Minogue’s hit “I Believe in You.”) They’ve performed on most of England’s major TV showcases and boast a fan base comprised of college hipsters, not-so-hip moms and quite a few grandmothers. Rave reviews of their live shows led to top spots on Europe’s festival circuit. In the U.S., their disco reworking of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” was nominated for a Grammy and put them in the company of acts such as Basement Jaxx and Chemical Brothers (they all lost to Britney Spears’ single “Toxic,” this past Sunday). U2′s Bono called Scissor Sisters the best pop band in the world.

Those are formidable achievements, but in a phone interview, Hoffman says the band is itching to make it big stateside. He says record sales in the U.S. are only a fraction of those across the Atlantic, and aside from a handful of adult-contemporary outlets, radio exposure has been a struggle. Many British bands would be thrilled with the status quo, but Hoffman and company, who live in New York, want to bring it back home.

“We’re all-American kids,” he says, “and we really want this to work in America.”

Not in Kansas anymore

It began three years ago with Hoffman, then working in TV production, and his friend, Jason Sellards, an intern at Paper magazine and part-time go-go dancer. It was only 10 days after the destruction of 9/11, he says, and “you still couldn’t walk outside without smelling it.” In need of a release, they performed what would be their first show: an open-mike night at The Slipper Room, a Lower East Side cabaret-bar where Ana Matronic (Ana Lynch) was the host. In the months and performances that followed, Matronic added her emcee skills to Scissor Sisters; Hoffman, on bass, took the name Babydaddy; and frontman Sellards became Jake Shears. Drummer Paddy Boom (Patrick Seacor) and guitarist Del Marquis (Derek Gruen) soon filled out the lineup.

American labels showed little interest, so after a short stint in New York’s ill-fated electroclash scene (with artists like Peaches, Tiga and Fischerspooner), the Sisters flew east to the U.K. where they were signed by Polydor. Upon subsequent visits, the crowds they played to doubled in size. They landed an opening spot for Duran Duran, a band whom Hoffman says paved the way for what he does today. “Ana and I were huge fans,” he enthuses, describing their music as “pop that’s subversive and adult when you dig into it.”

They also warmed up for Sir Elton John, whose piano popcraft laid the groundwork for much of the Sisters’ repertoire. Hoffman describes John as a father figure, always willing to offer support. “[He gives us] encouragement more than advice, actually,” he explains. “He gave us some very stern words when we asked for them. It essentially came down to, ‘You’ve got to put the work in to succeed.’ “

Hoffman goes on: “You look at your idols and tend to think that they never had to put in the time at these tiny clubs and all the traveling and all of that, but Elton” — he pauses for emphasis — “Elton is working as hard today as ever, and has never really stopped.”

Hoffman and Sellards told John they feared their creativity was stagnating because constant touring consumed all songwriting time. “His advice was ‘Don’t stop. It will come.’ ” Hoffman says, adding that John’s seminal double album, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” was written and recorded in only 17 days — while John was touring.

It’s a fitting parallel. Remarkably diverse for its time, “Yellow Brick Road” is a milestone in Elton John’s career, with Caribbean rhythms (“Jamaican Jerk Off”) and country & western (“Roy Rodgers”) standing alongside churlish rock (“Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting”) and weepy ballads (“Candle in the Wind”).

Scissor Sisters’ eponymous debut exemplifies such eclecticism. Torch songs, Southern rock and sparkly disco all emerge before the halfway mark, with clean piano hooks nodding to John’s legacy throughout. Even the album art follows related themes: On the Sisters’ album, a forest fairy walks through a portal into a gleaming Times Square, while on “Yellow Brick Road,” John, in ruby-red platform shoes, steps through a wall into the brilliance of Oz. Both images evoke opulent escapism, and invite you along.

Take us out

Like John, the band also knows about being openly gay and in the spotlight. The quintet — whose drummer is the only straight member — take their sexuality seriously, but trade in melodrama and messages for celebration and sass. On the single “Take Your Mama,” the Sisters urge a friend to come out to his mother — not over coffee in a quiet cafe, but partying with her in a strip club called The New Orleans. The chorus goes:

Gonna take your mama out all night Yeah we’ll show her what it’s all about

We’ll get her jacked up on some cheap champagne

We’ll let the good times all roll out

And if the music ain’t good, well it’s just too bad

We’re gonna sing along no matter what

Because the dancers don’t mind at the New Orleans

If you tip ‘em and they make a cut

This silly sketch could have been drawn from life, since both Sellards’ and Hoffman’s mothers are known for frequenting shows (Sellards’ mom even joined them on tour) and reveling late at after-parties. “I think it’s important for kids to see that you can play rock ‘n’ roll and be different,” Hoffman says, but then reminds me how they try to avoid the “gay band” label by writing most songs from a neutral or multigender perspective. But with Scissor Sisters — whose name refers to a lesbian sexual position — the closet door is wide open. The group recently worked with director John Cameron Mitchell, of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” fame, to create the video for the band’s new single, “Filthy / Gorgeous,” a campy romp about transvestism, and Sellards is known to let his inner-stripper loose onstage from time to time.

This could be one reason why radio stations in middle America are hesitant to promote the band, although Hoffman claims that crowds in the more conservative “red states” are growing. “We get such an amazing reaction there because there is a contingency of people desperate for some sort of release — something that isn’t bland and puritanical.” Nevertheless, the wave of Christian conservatism rippling through America ensures the band controversy whether they like it or not.

Sexual orientation isn’t the group’s only source of controversy. Their cover version of “Comfortably Numb” infuriated Pink Floyd’s most reverent fans, who saw the remake’s disco beat and twittering falsetto — think Bee Gees meets Roger Waters — as blasphemy. But how do Waters and David Gilmour, the original authors of the song, feel about the cover?

“Oh, they gave us their blessing,” says Hoffman with a laugh, “That happened months ago. It’s really funny, because when we throw that back at angry Pink Floyd fans, they often apologize and go back and listen to our music and realize — they kinda like it [laughs].”

The cycle has now begun in the U.S., with classic-rock purists howling their disapproval. “It went away in England,” Hoffman explains, “but since we performed it on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ we’ve been getting a lot of new hate mail.”

Hoffman explains that rock and disco occupy the same place in their hearts. “It’s all one in the same to us,” Hoffman says. “We didn’t grow up in the days of rock ‘n’ roll vs. disco and we don’t really care. We just like what we like. We understand people freaking out about [the Floyd cover]. And so they don’t have to listen.”

Explosion of raw talent

Hoffman dismisses the notion that record sales and Grammy nominations spell success. “I’m just a stick in the mud,” he mumbles. “For me, the job is never done, there’s always work to do. I do have those moments, though, like with the Grammy nomination, but,” he pauses, lowering his voice, “I’m always naysaying everything: ‘Well, you know it’s only Best Dance Single.’ “

Scissor Sisters’ live shows, Hoffman says, are radically different than their studio output. “The album represents only half of what we are as a band,” he says. “We made the album in my apartment, and it was pieced together in a very studio-like manner. Live shows are the complete opposite. An explosion, really raw. It is a rock ‘n’ roll show.”

Indeed, live gigs are known for heavier percussion and Del Marquis acting out his “guitar god” fantasies. Hoffman says they enjoy theatrics, such as extravagant clothes and stage design, but when asked about multiple costume changes, his voice changes. Perhaps realizing his enthusiasm, he haltingly plays it down: “Oh, people throw things on,” he says dismissively, “and we have some special lighting, but for the most part, especially in the beginning before we establish ourselves, I think it’s unwise to do something too theatrical. We want people to realize that we are a rock band and we can play.”

Hoffman hopes that their live show can continue to expand and they can continue to play with — and frequently upstage — their elders. “We want to do it all: the theatrics, the songwriting, the rock ‘n’ roll. Our basic philosophy is ‘win the show.’ It’s a little selfish, but we do try to take over every room and make it our own. It could be our downfall or our biggest asset, but I hope that’s what gives us lasting power.”