Back in 2003, Chicks On Speed opened their album 99 Cents with the words, “No-one noticed you had disappeared”. A decade later they had the opposite problem – people didn’t realise they were still around.
The art-punk collective persisted, though, growing and then shrinking again around its two founding members, Alex Murray-Leslie of Sydney and Melissa Logan of New York. Kiki Moorse, the sole Munich native in the group that was formed there, left to pursue a solo career as a DJ in 2006. “I think it’s quite a natural process for collaborators to come and go,” says Murray-Leslie. “Everybody has their own solo work and careers to pursue. Melissa and I keep the group rolling and busy with art, music and fashion projects.”
Last year they returned for one of those multidisciplinary projects, a “sonic sculptural installation” called Scream. It involved apps that allowed the audience to interact with a musical performance via tablets, controlling visuals as well as giving instructions to musicians so that they could join in and, as Logan puts it, “kind of jam with us.” They’re planning to expand this interaction in Utopia, the new album and show of the same name that’s evolved from Scream. Logan explains, “Eventually what we’re going to have [at the show] is that the app can be downloaded by anyone who has a smartphone or iPad and can log in. Then one has to work out, OK, who is in control? And how one knocks each other out, and another person grabs control of the projection and the audiovisual.”
An important part of what Chicks On Speed do is incorporating instruments of their own design into their show, combining art, music, and even fashion with these handmade objects. They’ve performed wearing megaphone hats that amplify everything they sing; they’ve had guitars made out of high heels, theremins made out of tapestries, and “supersuits” that used pressure sensors layered into their clothes to transmit wireless signals to instruments, like wearable keyboards.
It’s this inventiveness with the intersection between technology and music that’s led to the apps. “What they originally were were more pieces which we actually wore for performances,” says Logan. “It also came from us looking around and thinking, ‘OK, which instruments do we play? We don’t play guitars!’ And then came the high-heel shoe guitar – this anti-stance we’d had; ‘We don’t wanna play [ordinary] guitar’ – then we had different synthesizers, then eventually we started sticking microphones in cigar boxes, which led to properly having synthesizers built into cigar boxes. Then it progresses and soon one finds oneself into the gadgets which all of society’s addicted to, including people onstage, and it just seems natural then to bring them onstage.”
One of the apps uses face tracking, a surveillance technology that identifies human faces and can be used to automatically identify criminals and troublemakers. “We thought it would be interesting to use a technology that’s also connected to this spying, almost, that’s happening right now with all these insane NSA revelations that are coming out … Through the camera the user’s face then appears in the app and a mouth is stuck on, one of our mouths, and it starts talking.”
The title of the Utopia album seems deeply ironic, given that one of the themes they’re exploring is the Orwellian modern surveillance of ordinary citizens, both in the tech surrounding the album and the songs themselves. Murray-Leslie explains that the title track is a cover – they’ve always been into cover versions, whether of The B-52s or Tom Tom Club – this time of “a song by Tuomas Toivonen originally called ‘Urbanism In The House’, which we renamed ‘Utopia’. It’s about renovating cities instead of generic gentrification – ‘Stop knocking down our neighbourhoods.’ That whole notion of failed utopias, where we keep building these individualistic, architect-driven dreams. It’s cool to design one’s environment, but we need to think more about sustainable cities that can last a long time for communities to live in and culture to grow.”
As well as surprising covers, Chicks On Speed have often enjoyed surprising collaborations: their new songs feature appearances from Yoko Ono and Julian Assange. While Assange might already have a co-writing credit on an M.I.A. track and a few festival appearances via Skype under his belt, with Chicks On Speed he appears as a vocalist – though speaking, not singing. “He sounds very personal,” Logan says, “talking about the connection between humans and God in the way that it’s like a crime against humanity to have these in-between people filtering; saying, for example, ‘I know what God says, so you have to listen to me.’ Which is also a really interesting thing for him to talk about because it sounds like an abstract conversation about religion, but it’s not – it’s about the filtration of information and someone taking the power over information, which is really the basis of what’s happening with WikiLeaks and with Snowden.”
Utopia will bring Chicks On Speed back to Australia – Logan is currently in Hamburg and Murray-Leslie in Barcelona – which both are looking forward to for different reasons. For Logan, who was born in rural New South Wales, it’s about returning home. “Living in Europe has been an amazing experience and we’ve had a great deal of support in Germany and Spain for what we do, but I feel it’s time to come and give back to Australian culture now. I’ve been away for so long.” For Murray-Leslie the reason is simpler: “I’m tired of this drizzle here. I haven’t seen the sun in a while!”
Utopia out Friday March 14 through Chicks On Speed Records.