Buzzing on Electric Honey: An Interview with Jill Cunniff of
Jill Cunniff has to be the only person that’s ever mentioned Joni Mitchell and Motorhead to me in the same breath, much less as influences. When I mention this to her, she laughs and blithely states, “well, I love all music.” It’s an attitude that’s prevalent on the four records her band, Luscious Jackson, has recorded for Grand Royal, all of which have shown an eclectic nature that’s matched by few other bands — let alone bands that have had top 40 singles (“Naked Eye”), gold record-selling albums (1996’s Fever In Fever Out ), and endorsement deals ranging from their particularly memorable Gap ads to the more recent shade of Tommy Hilfigger lipstick named for the band (which Cunniff claims she “actually use[s] all the time!”).
Cunniff (who sings and plays multiple instruments, though she’s primarily known as a bassist) and Gabrielle “Gabby” Glaser (who also sings and plays multiple instruments, while primarily being seen as the band’s guitarist) have been cultivating this eclectic nature since 1991, when they came together to record the demos that would eventually result in Luscious Jackson’s celebrated debut EP, In Search of Manny . The duo quickly made a name for themselves in New York City, where they befriended (and opened for) the Beastie Boys, became the first act signed to the Beasties’ label, Grand Royal, and soon after, picked up keyboardist Vivian Trimble and former Beastie Boys drummer, Kate Schellenbach. Trimble has since grown tired of the rigors of touring, and in 1998, she left the band, which has continued on as a trio.
The band’s eclectic nature is really put to the test on their latest effort, Electric Honey . Cunniff feels there was not a conscious effort to diversify more that previous releases, saying that the band has “always done, if you listen back, a lot of the same type of stuff. We draw from… any number of sources.” Still, Honey seems to take this diversity to the next level, retaining the hip hop-influenced, bass heavy dance grooves that have made the band so popular, but branching out into space rock, shimmery pop, and darker, moodier flavors than have been found on previous efforts. If their sound was eclectic before, it’s a veritable smorgasbord now!
The band is currently co-headlining the Yahoo! Outloud tour with Smash Mouth, and just after the start of the tour, I caught up with Jill to discuss musical philosophy, influences, and the power of the Internet.
How do you feel Vivian’s departure has affected the group dynamic?
It’s been so long now… (laughs). We’ve always done things more like conductors or composers, and it was never as much a band, like we’re all jamming together, although we did do an album with more of that, which was our previous album, Fever In Fever Out . Mostly, the majority of our recordings have been [done] track by track, from a producer’s point of view. We’ve always had different keyboardists. So, in other words, it wasn’t as dramatic as a band, where you’ve got four people, and one leaves and the sound changes dramatically. What we lost was some of her jazz leanings, like she definitely adds minor key stuff, which we miss. So, that definitely changed.
What does the title Electric Honey mean to you?
Well, it just came from nowhere, but it turned out to be symbolic of the sound that we were going for, which is a combination of electronic and organic.
I noticed that you wrote and co-produced most of the record, and on a lot of tracks, some of the other band members aren’t even on them. Is this a typical arrangement, or did things change up this time out?
I started writing more on my own, which is what I did before. We bring people in when they’re needed; that’s how we work, which is more like a composer, I would think. That is basically the best way for us to work.
So it doesn’t really affect the feel of being in a group, because you approach it from the standpoint of a composer.
That’s always how we’ve done it, actually. We understand that each track will be approached differently. There’s a lot of groups that function like that, where they’re groups, but there’s usually a leader of a song.
Were you excited to work with Debbie Harry?
Yeah! We grew up listening to Blondie and take a lot of inspiration and direction, in terms of eclecticism, from Blondie’s work. As you know, they were into pop, and rap, and new wave, and punk, and reggae, so I think we all felt like, “wow, this is so cool, they love all these musics and they do them successfully.” So why not?
How did you meet Emmylou Harris, and get started working with her?
Emmylou is a friend of Daniel Lanois, who produced our previous album. One day, while we were recording, she was in town, and Dan asked if we’d like [to have her] do some backing vocals. Some of us were more familiar with her work than others, she’s very well known in the country music world. I hadn’t really heard her music, but I knew that she was the real thing. She’s like a real singer, almost more folk than country. Also, she’s very much an explorer. We’ve actually struck up a collaboration; we’re writing partners now. I’m helping her on her new album. Actually, we wrote a song together for Western Wall [Harris’ recent collaboration with Linda Ronstadt]. So that’s blossomed into something bigger than backing vocals. (laughs) Now, I’ve gone and purchased all of her albums, and am a full-fledged fan.
Luscious Jackson seem to have really embraced the Internet. What do you think is the best thing about the Internet and it’s effect on the music business?
Well, we have yet to see. We’re still in transition, I think. The thing that’s happening, which is good, is it provides an outlet for people who aren’t on major labels. The bad thing is that there’s a glut of information, and what’s going to end up happening is individual places are going to be tastemakers. Individual sites are going to have to start paring down, where you’re back to a system like the major labels, but possibly, there’s going to be a more equitable profit sharing. A lot of the new companies starting are embracing the 50-50 split, after costs have been recouped, which is very different from traditional record label deal, where you get 15% and have to recoup all of your costs out of that. Which is why everyone kept saying to us, like TLC, “how can you not be making money?” Well, look at our deal! (laughs) We made a video, and we got charged for half of it, our record cost $700,000 to make, we got charged fully for that, and then you have to sell 2 million records to even see a penny. That’s why – it’s so much money for a major label to put out an album, that the way the deals are structured, at this point, something’s gotta give. People are realizing that and starting Internet companies, which have a smaller overhead and a smaller distribution charge, some of them are downloading directly – if people really are smart, it will produce a new scene of music that isn’t as expensive.
There’s been some industry buzz that Grand Royal is going to move away from traditional means of distribution and convert to Internet-only…
Right. I doubt they’ll do Internet-only. I don’t really know, but at this point, you can’t really make money on Internet-only, so there will have to be a traditional side to it, as well, which means distribution, but there are tons of indie distributors, so… It is definitely a time of change, the major labels are consolidating and time will tell who’s going to last. It may be that the majors are only going to be interested in big, gigantic pop stars, like Brittany Spears, and smaller stuff won’t be there anymore, it’ll find a new home, which hopefully, will be the Internet. The ideal world is [one where] artists who are making music for art’s sake, and making music that they love, will be able to make a living. So, we’ll see. It used to be a major label would have a huge star, and then sort of promote the smaller careers, you know, there was a whole system there. Everything’s changing, especially with the businesses conglomerating, and it’s almost looked at as a crop or something now.
Will you stay with Capitol with all these dealings that are going on with Grand Royal?
We don’t know.
Do you think this is going to be a pro or a con for a lot of the younger acts on the label?
(laughs) It’s really up in the air. Was the old system better than the potentially new system? Is the old system still going to be there? After the dust settles, can it go back to the way it was? No one really knows. Is the Internet going to become the tool of the major labels only, or is it going to be a whole new… a lot of people are hoping that it becomes a new method of distribution and marketing. It’s definitely got the potential, and it’s an easily accessible, central location, which we’ve never had before. Anyone can go on internationally and find something. We’ve never had that. All you could do was walk into your record store and say “do you have” something obscure. Say you’re in Belgium, and you want to hear, I don’t know what tiny record, you know. Now, you can go online, and potentially find your drum n’ bass label, or whatever it is (laughs).
How involved are you in your own Web site (http://www.lusciousjackson.com)?
We’ve been involved, and try to keep it updated as much as possible. I think the problem is the amount of stuff that we have to do on a day-to-day basis means that gets shoved to the back in terms of what we put on there. We’re trying to keep up to date on it. We launched it ourselves with a company, it is our Web site, not a record label Web site.
It’s definitely one of the better band sites I’ve seen.
Thanks! The hardest part is the updates. Finding time to do it, because of the time constraints that we’re under.
Being on the road, it’s got to be hard to keep up with.
Oh, it’s the last thing I’m thinking about (laughs). [I’m trying to figure out] how I’m going to get enough sleep!
You’re also on an Internet-based and -sponsored tour right now. What’s the concept behind the tour, and how did you end up working with Yahoo!?
Yahoo! decided they wanted to do a tour that promoted their site to college kids. Basically, they came to us and said, “here’s the deal,” and it’s a really nice tour for us in terms of the amenities – instead of touring in clubs where we have a different sound system every day, we have the same sound system every night. It’s just an easy way to tour. In a way, this could be the future of touring, although people might go, “how can you use sponsors, how can you do a sponsored tour?” They don’t understand the economics of touring, that you can’t make money on the road. It’s very hard for even big artists to profit on the road. In a way, this is the future of it. OK, so you have to tour with Yahoo!, but they’re promoting and they pay you well and they give you good sound people. It makes a huge, huge difference.
It’s not any different than the Warped Tour, and that still has credibility.
I don’t think you lose anything by that, and I’d be surprised to hear anyone else thought you did.
It’s still up for grabs because people think… people are very naïve about the music industry, I think. There’s always this thing about legitimacy and credibility, and it’s like, once you’re on a major label, it is so commercialized. Once you’ve accepted that, it’s not that far to go on a Yahoo! tour. It’s all in the same boat, you’re marketing, you’re out there marketing. It’s naïve to be a purist.
How are you liking being on the road with Smash Mouth?
It’s only been two shows, and so far, so good. We have to get together with them and hang out, we haven’t done that yet.
You’re also doing a remix contest with Mixman (http://www.mixman.com). How did you get involved with them, and how has the experience been?
They came to Grand Royal, and we just finally judged all the remixes. I think it’s really cool. It’s a simple way for kids to get into remixing without a big bunch of equipment, or at least start and whet their appetite. “Am I really interested in this, should I buy it? Should I buy some kind of system to remix on, should I buy a sampler, should I save up for a sequencer?” You know, there’s just so much happening right now that it’s hard to keep up.
Have you been pleased with the results you’ve heard?
Yeah, we actually picked winners, we ended up listening to about 20 tracks, and they were really cool.
Being in an all-female band, do you get sick of answering questions about the challenges of being a “woman in rock”?
You know, no one really asks you anymore, to be honest.
Do you think it’s even a factor anymore, now that there’s been success with things like the Lilith Fair?
I don’t really know. It’s so hard to tell. Right now, radio’s definitely not playing women, for the most part, except for Brittany and Christina [Aguillera]. There’s no women on there. It’s been a really tough year for women artists, especially alternative radio. Why that is, I don’t know, the format’s hard – metal/rap. I’m not sure it’s against women, it’s just that’s the format right now. It’s a strange world we live in, very strange.
Luscious Jackson hit the Southeast on the Yahoo! Outloud Tour this month, with stops on March 8th at the Tabernacle in Atlanta, and March 10th at the Pompano Beach Amphitheater in Pompano Beach.