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Chicks On Speed's Subversive Strategies

"It was a concept," starts Alex Murray-Leslie, the genial Australian girl who makes up one part of the international American/Australian/German three-lass sisterhood that is maniacal-multimedia-art-project-cum-cheesy-electropop-party Chicks on Speed, in speaking of the second proper Chicks on Speed album, 99 Cents. "We thought: 'We want to make pop songs, we want to be played on radio, we want to be on TV.' Because there's such a low representation of good music on MTV, whether it's Peaches or Gonzales or musicians on labels like Mute or Novamute or whoever. And, so, we wanted to break through that, to find ourselves in places that're hard to get into in the conservative, tough-minded music industry.

"And we have, a little bit. I mean, I think we have succeeded in so many ways," she continues. "We've been on all this commercial television in Germany. We've been on MTV — although we haven't been played on MTV Europe as much as I thought we would've. We get on, but it's been more like we've been on at 12 at night, because they can't deal with our video. It's so conservative. It's such a shame. It's a shame that we can't change music more than we have. But we'll keep going, because we love the challenge of trying."

99 Cents is, thus, their obvious attempt at a genuine pop album. And it's a long way from the early, subversive art-school/abstract-electro beginnings. The Chicks — Kiki Moorse, Melissa Logan and Murray-Leslie — were ushered in to the pop-music world via a handful of singles on their first record-label imprints, Stop Records and Go Records, beginning with 1998's "Euro-Trash Girl." With production from members of the extended Mego family, COS walked a fine line between damaged digitalia and pantomimed pop. In an event that seemed curious at the time but has since become the norm, the outfit found their faces splashed all over magazines like The Face long before they'd done anything like make an album.

Their first album, Chicks on Speed Will Save Us All! (Chicks on Speed Records), came out in early 2000. Released simultaneously was a limited-edition disc, The Unreleases, which found the entire COS catalogue being cut up and pasted together by the likes of Ramon Bauer and Gerhard Potuznik; this same disc was re-released, as The Re-Releases of The Unreleases, by K later that year. With EP-length exercises — a B-52's covers set, a collaboration with Anglo/German neo-kraut cats Kreidler — following on, the early days of the band were a hive of activity, with a slew of releases throwing out manic pop and stylistic curveballs alike. Chicks on Speed took to the road, and have been heavily touring ever since, and have had 99 Cents ready for release for over a year.

So why has the wait been so long? It's been three years, Murray-Leslie offers, because the band has been busy, and because the record was labored over, and because rock-biz politics have meant that they've had to wait for business shit to get worked out by people who have naught to do with them or their label, Chicks on Speed Records. Such a label belongs to the "Labels" group in Europe, whose ranks include a slew of credible imprints including City Slang, Monika, ~scape, and Bpitchcontrol. When the distributorial rights to the Labels group were sold to EMI, Chicks on Speed suddenly found what amounted to their worldwide rights in the hands of a big rich major label. This was, in theory, an important part of their crossover move, but it also meant that there was a whole lot of schedule-organizing and delays, and it's reached the point, now, where Murray-Leslie, speaking in what is supposedly promotion for her band's new album, sounds like anything but a salesman.

"We started working on this record over two years ago," she states. "But we were just touring all the time, we toured for the best part of two years. You get so many requests to play live here or there, and we actually made the mistake of booking our schedule so it was so packed that we didn't have any time to concentrate on the finished production of our album.

"After our Labels group got sold to EMI, it took almost a year for our record to be licensed around to various major labels," Alex says. "I think it way too long. The album doesn't sound fresh, and it certainly doesn't seem fresh to us. I think it still works, no, but if that album had sat on the shelf any longer, I probably would have rather they didn't bring it out."

It's been on the shelf so long that Chicks on Speed already have their next record completed, and hope to have it out in the new year. Murray-Leslie seems much more enthusiastic about this disc, which, after they tried their best for pop hits, finds, instead, "nothing remotely radio-playable" on it. "It's real trial-and-error, based on jam sessions, and collecting samples and writing songs together," she says of this disc. "We played Korg synthesizers and paint-scrapers and shakers. It's got a much more open, experimental approach. We're not relying on the same things we relied on with 99 Cents, which is an album of pop songs, with a very plastic feel; it's very highly-produced, made on a computer, with everything polished up on the computer. With this new record we tried to very much just work with first takes, and that's it — a get-what-you-get kind of approach. Which is a fun way to work."

It's these songs that COS have already been playing live in recent months, and they're not going to change that just because the prior album has finally come out. "We're meant to be promoting the album 99 Cents, but we don't do that," she says, with smiling matter-of-fact-ness. "We've been playing those songs since three years ago, and, now, we're already playing the songs from the upcoming album. We don't believe in the routine of having an album and promoting it to the fullest, in that traditional way that a band will make a record and then go on tour to sell the record."

A reason, perhaps, they don't indulge in the regular touring machinations of rock bands is that they are not really a rock band. Born in a German art school, they only morphed into a band once their music started taking on a life of its own. That life has since grown and grown, to the point where it's essentially eclipsed the idea that these girls were ever about fashion or installations or, like, performance-art, or whatever.

"We are a project, an art group," Murray-Leslie re-affirms, firmly. "We've always seen ourselves existing outside of music. We actually just made a book, now, that gives reference to a lot of projects we've done over the last four years, and future plans. It puts it more in context of where we stand within fashion, or in the art world, or not within the art world."

She continues: "When you buy a CD, you only get one thing: a CD in a jewel-case with a bad-quality inlay. We can't do anything about that; those are the limitations of the music industry at the moment. As far as live concerts go, we can express ourselves to the utmost, and say what we wanna say, and project all sorts of ideas, from the costumes that we're wearing to the projections behind us to the lighting to the makeup to the shoes. So we definitely have a lot of fun on stage, and all of that fits into the musical context. So, we find a way to express all of our ideas at once; that's very important to us." — Anthony Carew [Thursday, December 4, 2003]

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