Friday, June 18, 2010

Scissor Sisters: 'Sexuality is a universal thing'

The Scissor Sisters ended up binning their first run at a third album, before it emerged as a dark reflection on gay culture. If only they can agree on how to put it on stage

Alexis Petridis
Thursday 17 June 2010

Jake Shears pokes distractedly at his iPad and lets out a sigh. "If everything goes according to plan over the coming year," he says, a little ruefully, "I'm going to be totally screwed. You come and see me again in six months' time, and I'm not going to be looking so cute."

Across the table, his co-vocalist and long-term on-stage foil Ana Lynch nods sympathetically. "Baby's going to be busy," she says, from beneath a hairstyle so elaborate it looks like it required not a stylist, but a team of structural engineers and a quantity surveyor.

The issue isn't really the third Scissor Sisters album, Night Work, which has finally arrived after a gestation period so lengthy and torturous that a despondent Shears literally disappeared midway through its making, not even telling his partner where he was going. Nor is it the accompanying world tour on which, Shears suggests – not entirely convincingly, and apparently to the bemusement of Lynch – that Scissor Sisters will present themselves in a way that's "a little more grown up, a little less ramshackle Muppet-fest". The problem is that the Scissor Sisters have somehow contrived to launch an album and a world tour at the same time as their frontman's first musical goes into production: an adaptation of Armistead Maupin's Tales From (of) the City he's written in collaboration with the team behind the smash Broadway Muppet-fest Avenue Q. It's scheduled to open next spring in San Fransisco after three years in development. "The money's come to the table, so now it's real. It's getting serious, which is actually kind of frightening. It's a musical musical. It's not a rock musical. I haven't approached it like a pop star. This isn't" – he wrinkles his nose – "U2 writing a Spider-Man musical. I think the best thing about it is that it's got all my leanings towards musical theatre out."

"And I can't thank you enough for letting all your musical theatre out there, rather than on the new album," says Lynch heavily. This is, it turns out, a pretty representative exchange between the two. A decade on from their legendary first meeting in a New York gay club on Halloween (Lynch in fancy dress modelled on the "superstars" of indeterminate talent who populated Andy Warhol's Factory in the 60s; Shears – then a stripper at a bar called IC Guys – as "a late-term back-alley abortion"), their conversation is somewhere between that of a long married couple and a vaudeville cross-talk act: they bicker about the band's stage show, their history, the history of New York. And, today at least, they make for a striking visual study in contrasts. Shears, extremely handsome in a very clean-cut, all-American way, is dressed down in jeans. Lynch, on the other hand, is resplendent in designer dress, false lashes you could comfortably land a helicopter on, eyeliner out to here and heels down to there, a look which has earned her her own following of lovestruck admirers – who refer to themselves as Anasexuals – within the band's pantheon of fans. Although she's keen to point out that she only looks like this because of an imminent photoshoot and is perfectly capable of walking around Glastonbury with her husband unnoticed – "If I don't want to be recognised, I will not be recognised, I am that powerful a witch" – their appearances seem to reflect their personalities, at least while the Dictaphone is on. While you're clearly never going to get him mixed up with a former member of Oasis, Shears is less camp and more earnest than you might expect of a man who recently posed for a magazine photoshoot naked save for a sailor's cap. Lynch, on the other hand, has the unmistakable high-speed wisecracking speech patterns of a woman who has spent a lot of time hanging around gay men: in the past, she has described her immersion in gay culture as an attempt to understand her father, who came out when she was a toddler and died of an Aids-related illness when she was 15. If you search the internet, you can find a website that collects her more memorable outbursts: "Stop booing the heteros," she told one audience, "if it wasn't for them, your gay asses wouldn't be here." She has a propensity to puncture some of Shears's more sober pronouncements with one-liners.

Three albums in, they still make being in a multimillion-selling pop band seem like incredible fun, which is a rarer state of affairs than you might expect: they don't complain about the workload, or the pressures of fame, or any of the things pop bands past a certain point tend to make heavy weather of. No, they're not bothered about Scissor Sisters' failure to replicate their European success in America. "I always say that our success in America is ordinary, and our success everywhere else is extraordinary, because it feels that way," offers Lynch. No, they don't put said failure down to homophobia or a prevalent feeling among US rock audiences that disco still sucks: "Dave Grohl really likes us!"

They don't even make the recording of Night Work sound that tough, although it clearly was. Midway through the sessions, with an album "I didn't feel was both right or very good" nearly completed, Shears elected to vanish to Berlin in what he calls "a symbolic move", neglecting to tell anyone where he was going. "I ran out of New York before anybody knew I was gone, which was very exciting. I felt bad for my boyfriend. Poor Chris, everybody thought I'd left him, which was sad for him, but he was very supportive. I just had a really great time. I met a lot of musicians I love, I made a lot of new friends, I went out a lot and just partied. I felt like a kid again. In New York, I'd started to feel like an old lady. I was doing the same routine every day, living in TriBeCa, which is mommy central with financial analysts around you at all times. I knew Berlin was a place where I could go out dancing and hear good techno and get up to whatever it was I felt like getting up to at any particular time of day."

While in Berlin, he came up with an entirely new concept for the album, based around the music that predominated in early 80s clubland, and, in Britain at least, the charts. 1984 was the year when the top 40 went howlingly, unrepentantly gay in a way never seen before or since: the big new artists were Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Bronski Beat; the hot new indie band was the Smiths; an array of high-energy records – Where Is My Man? (sung by, of all people, Eartha Kitt), So Many Men, So Little Time, I Need a Man, It's Raining Men, Searchin' (I Gotta Find a Man), You Think You're a Man – shifted vast quantities. "That music worked universally. I think the trick is that sexuality, whether it's gay sexuality or not, is a universal thing. I mean, everyone gets horny. I don't think it really matters what kind of sex is being sung about because I think it still applies to everyone. It's as if the party kind of stopped, and it's no coincidence that happened hand in hand with Aids. It set back the gay rights movement in a major way. I think we're just moving past this 25-year setback. It placed a big judgment call on [the gay club scene]. Suddenly, there was a big, 'Oh, you had it coming.' I just started wondering where music was headed, where dance music would have headed, where all that would have gone. And Night Work is my hypothesis."

The result is a noticeably harder and darker album than the family-friendly dancefloor euphoria associated with Scissor Sisters. It arrives wrapped in a sleeve featuring a taut pair of male buttocks, features a demonic Frankie-style voiceover from Sir Ian McKellen ("Did he nail it straightaway? Oh, yeah. You know what, even if he wouldn't have, what are you going to say? Sorry, you need to do that again?") and, in a metaphor you hardly need a degree in the semiotics of rock lyrics to decode, a song in which a serial killer stalks the dancefloor.

With its fixation on clubland and hymning of a mythic, lost past, it's tempting to view Night Work as the product of a stadium-filling band pining for a time before the platinum records and Brits appearances, when they were famed only as a fixture in New York's more outrĂ© gay clubs, but Lynch looks a bit horrified at the suggestion: "Do I miss being a club band in New York? No! Fuck, no! We had a problem in New York that was very similar to the problems we had in America subsequently. The electroclash scene was going on, and we were a unicorn. It was all, like, 'Who is this weird band playing guitars?'"

"We were busting out this, like, honky-tonk music," nods Shears. He thinks for a moment. "Actually, I do miss those days."

Lynch frowns. "I would say we look back fondly, but not wistfully. Not in the slightest."

"It was fun!" protests Shears.

"It was a lot of fun," concedes Lynch, after a pause. "I haven't had a drink poured down my pants while I was on stage since."

Talk turns to their forthcoming world tour, but that just seems to set them off arguing again. Lynch has already had ideas for elaborate staging – "the first time I heard Invisible Light, I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to have happen in one part of the song" – and responds to a question about whether they'd like to perform without the associated glitz and razzmatazz with a baffled "pardon me?"

Shears, on the other hand, insists "we've never been outrageous on stage", which, with the best will in the world, seems a slightly odd conclusion to draw, given his costumes and Lynch's between-song banter collected at the aforementioned website: "There aren't a lot of tits on the radio, but there's certainly a lot of cunts!"

"I mean, we've always had big shows or whatever," Shears says, perhaps noticing my confused expression, "but we've never had …"

"It's never been about dancers or choreography," says Lynch. "Or pyrotechnics."

"And I hope it never will be." He frowns. "Actually, there may be some pyrotechnics."

"There will definitely be some pyrotechnics," nods Lynch.

Shears exhales. "I'm less compelled at the moment to, like, be crazy on stage, seeing as everybody else is now."

"Yeah, well," snorts Lynch, "thanks to us."

"I just wore jeans in our first video for this record," says Shears. "And it was fucking awesome. I'm wearing a lot of denim."

Lynch looks mortified. "I am not," she says firmly, "going to wear jeans.

Night Work is released on Polydor on 28 June.

"Mary Ann in Autumn" Book Cover

A picture of the book cover for "Mary Ann in Autumn" has been released!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cheers to ACT's Tosca Project

San Francisco Chronicle
Catherine Bigelow
June 11, 2010

When I first began frequenting Tosca Cafe (which, for the record, shall be noted only as, "an undisclosed number of years"), my favorite seat in this storied bar was a stool in the far right-hand corner just as you pass through that joint's double-swinging doors.

Author-playwright Armistead Maupin (left) with his husband, Christopher Turner and his sister, Jane Maupin Yates, at the Geary Theater.
From this perch at the mahogany plank, I would sip a post-work cocktail in quiet bliss with a lazy eye Focused on the bar's arched glass windows.

Outside on Columbus Avenue the sidewalk filled with a colorful swirl of office-exiting cube-dwellers and early-evening seekers of sybaritic delights.

The French refer to this time of day as, l'heure bleue -- that magical flash of twilight which is neither day nor evening. A moment when possibilities seem infinite. And any number of things -- friends, strangers, politics, love, drama, literature or movie stars -- may push through the doors of this historic North Beach boite.

Tosca Project sponsor Lucy Jewett and Tosca Project choreographer Val Caniparoli

That same sense of possibility pervaded Wednesday at the Geary Theater during the American Conservatory Theater world premiere of The Tosca Project.

Created by ACT Artistic Director Carey Perloff and S.F. Ballet choreographer Val Caniparoli, this beautifully-rendered theater-dance piece is set within Tosca Cafe's sepia-toned walls (skillfully re-imagined at the Geary by Douglas Schmidt) and magically unfolds like an Edward Hopper  painting come to life.

The evening kicked-off at the St. Francis Hotel where stalwart ACT supporters delighted in a delish dinner, organized by ACT Trustee Priscilla Geeslin, at Restaurant Michael Mina which now features a handy pre-fixe dinner-theater menu.

"Val and I have been working on The Tosca Project for almost four years," joked Perloff, toasting her artistic comrade. "It was starting to feel almost longer than my marriage!"

The Project is expertly played by S.F. Ballet Principal dancers Pascal Molat and Lorena Feijoo, and former S.F. Ballet principal dancer Sabina Allemann, who've joined forces with celebrated actors Peter Anderson  and Rachel Ticotin, as well as ACT company members Gregory Wallace and Jack Willis.

"It's wonderful to experience two of San Francisco's great cultural institutions working together," enthused ACT Trustee Carlie Wilmans, who serves as a Tosca Project Executive producer.

Artistic schedules aside, the Project would never have gotten off the ground without support from commissioning sponsors Lucy Jewett, Susan Van Wagner and Kathleen Scutchfield, whom Perloff now fondly calls, "The Three Muses."

Perloff also paid loving tribute to Tosca Cafe owner Jeannette Etheredge and her late mother, celebrated restaurateur and balletomane Armen Baliantz.

"One night, Val and I were sitting in Tosca with Jeannette, talking about how we'd always wanted to create a full-length piece together," explained Perloff. "Suddenly it hit us -- between Jeannette's great stories about the bar and long friendship with Rudolf Nureyev  -- what better setting than Tosca in which to tell the story of all that is special about San Francisco."

Tosca Cafe opened in 1919. Through dance, music and costume, The Tosca Project spans the city's 20th-century cultural, political and societal history (sailors, beatniks, hippies, yuppies, grunge, techies) during the bar's 90 years in business.

The set renders the environs of Tosca in loving detail: the precise squeak of its swinging doors; the white-coated barmen; the exact font of the bar's iconic neon sign; the glow of the old-fashioned, aria-laden jukebox; the authentic ring of, possibly, the last public pay phone in EssEff; the roped-off entrance to the bar's elusive back room.

All of which is framed by a shroud of shifting fog which floats offstage outside the bar's recreated arched windows.

Perloff has been delighted by audience response. Many members of which have expressed to her that certain pieces reminded them of their own lives.

"One man told me that the World War II segment where the men ship off to Pearl Harbor was his story," said Perloff. "While that may be true, I teased that he couldn't possibly have been as handsome as the sailor played by Pascal Molat!"

Molat deftly plays nine different characters throughout the Project's various segments and describes the experience as, "enriching" because during same amount of time in a ballet he typically only plays one role.

"This piece allows me to act more. Fortunately I don't have to speak much," joked Molat, later at Tosca Cafe. "For me, it's all about the dancing. But working with these wonderful actors I became an observer to their world. We speak a different vocabulary but through texture we work towards the same goal of artistry."

All too soon, that final hour of "Last call," descended upon Tosca's famed red banquettes.

The hiss from the large espresso machines atop the bar ceased. Stools were re-aligned like a row of sentinels. The arias from the jukebox fell silent.

And the clutch of us remaining pushed our way through Tosca's swinging doors, out onto the sidewalk and into the cold, dark of early morning.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Tales" on Showtime

Showtime is airing "Armistead Maupin's 'More Tales of the City'" and "Armistead Maupin's 'Further Tales of the City'" on the following dates:

"Armistead Maupin's 'More Tales of the City'" part 2 June 17
"Armistead Maupin's 'More Tales of the City'" part 3 June 21
"Armistead Maupin's 'More Tales of the City'" part 4 June 28
"Armistead Maupin's 'More Tales of the City'" part 5 July 5
"Armistead Maupin's 'More Tales of the City'" part 6 July 12 
"Armistead Maupin's 'FurtherTales of the City'" part 1 July 19 
"Armistead Maupin's 'FurtherTales of the City'" part 2 July 26 

I apologize I dropped the ball on listing "Armistead Maupin's 'More Tales of the City'" part 1.  Hopefully Showtime will repeat the episode.

Check your local listings for airtime.

Armistead Honored

Author Armistead Maupin, center, glances down at the Assembly Resolution he received for his contributions to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender community, at the Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, June 14, 2010. The California Legislative LGBT caucus honored 10 individuals for their work in the LGBT community as part LGBT Pride Month Celebrations. Maupin was recognized for his books and articles portraying LGBT people in a positive light. Also seen are LGBT Legislative Caucus members, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, left, state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego.

Congratulations, Armistead!