Clash and Carry

Fledgling female-led musical movement gets ready to blossom.



EMP, Sky Church, 206-770-2702, $17/$15 members

9 p.m. Wed., Oct. 23

ELECTROCLASH. AS GENRE names go, it leaves something to be desired. In fact, Alex Murray-Leslie says her band, Chicks on Speed, has already come up with a better term to represent the current crop of edgy synth-pop acts. They've even splashed it across their latest line of promo T-shirts: electromancipation.

When the two vans hauling the performers for the Electroclash 2002 tour pull into a rest stop during their cross-country trek, only one artist, DJ Larry Tee, will be dashing for the men's room. The rest of the program's stellar lineup—Peaches, Chicks on Speed, Tracy + the Plastics, and W.I.T.—are all women. And they are not alone in the field. Females are key members of almost all of the best-known electroclash acts: Ladytron, Adult., Fischerspooner. DJ/performer Miss Kittin alone is featured on three of the genre's biggest albums: On by Golden Boy; Felix Da Housecat's Kittenz and Thee Glitz; and her collaboration with the Hacker, First Album.

Why are so many female artists drawn to the scene? Well, the answer is something else you won't find in Electroclash tour vans: guitars. Murray-Leslie thinks that has much to do with the genre's appeal to strong, creative young women. "The way you make [this] music is a lot more spontaneous. You can start doing it with a mini-disc player, with a computer. You don't have to sit in the basement for five years learning guitar." The only guitars in a COS show are cardboard cutouts.

Before there was electroclash, there was a New York DJ named Larry Tee, who, in the late '90s, found himself disillusioned with popular music. "I couldn't lift a house record, Radiohead made me want to kill myself, and trip-hop was, well, great to eat to," he recalls. "But there was nothing that made me want to jump around."

But then he stumbled across singles by Chicks on Speed and Adult., and caught one of Fischerspooner's theatrical multimedia circuses, and suddenly the desire to bounce off the walls was back. Tee started promoting his discoveries via a series of promotional nights, like Club Badd and Berliniamsburg. By early 2001, he'd even assembled a compilation of New York artists including Fischerspooner, Memoryboy, Zoviet, and Khan—released on his own label, he called it Electroclash. The following October, he produced the five-day Electroclash 2001 festival in New York City. The term stuck. By now, scenesters who were mere tots when Depeche Mode and Soft Cell first appeared were clamoring to hear a new crop of bands playing a brand of music that sounded as if it could've been made 20 years ago.

For Chicks on Speed—who covered songs by Reagan-era acts including Delta 5, the B-52s, and Malaria! on their 2000 release Chicks on Speed Will Save Us All!—that connection to the past runs deeper than mere nostalgia. "The energy that the women singing the songs had was so uninhibited," says Murray-Leslie. "And so were the fashions that they wore. For feminism as a whole, the punk era was a really great time. There was a freedom of expression—in clothing and music—that has gotten lost. As in folk music, we'd take something from it, add in other ingredients, and carry it into now."

By Larry Tee's estimation, electroclash should have no trouble playing in the provinces. "Remember when people said, 'The Human League and Gary Numan aren't going to work in Middle America?' That attitude just reeks of cultural superiority. I give people more credit than that. They're ready for something radically different from rap-metal."

But so far, the big American record labels have been slow to come around to this new sensation. And despite the inherently tuneful nature of electroclash, Murray-Leslie doesn't think that situation will change any time soon. "America doesn't have that history of electronic music," she observes. "And also, these major labels are dominated by men, and they don't want to take risks with women; they don't understand the aesthetic, because they're not women."

Whether the movement blossoms into a far-reaching pop phenomenon remains to be seen. In the meantime, Murray-Leslie says Chicks on Speed can live with being lumped under the "electroclash" umbrella for now. "It's a weird name, and it's weird to be put in a certain genre, but it's OK," she concludes. "It'll be gone next year, [but] we'll keep on making music."

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