“Magic” man: an interview with Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters
"It's much more challenging to write a positive song than a negative one."
by Gregg Shapiro
Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.
"Magic Hour" (Casablanca), the Scissor Sisters' fourth studio album has all the necessary ingredients to cast a spell on their devoted fans and to earn them plenty of new ones. Album opener "Baby Come Home" has a comfortable familiarity and even a touch of Prince to the mix. The galloping "Only The Horses" is a perfect summer single, the kind of Tea Dance anthem that is sure to fill dance-floors across the globe. The irresistible "Let's Have A Kiki" and "Keep Your Shoes On" broaden both the horizons of the Scissor Sisters and their followers, while "Shady Love," "San Luis Obispo" and "The Secret Life of Letters" are open musical invitations to newcomers far and wide. I had the pleasure of speaking with Scissor Sisters' front-man Jake Shears in June 2012.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) I'd like to begin by talking about the exterior of the "Magic Hour" disc. The cover art is reminiscent of the album covers that the British design team Hipgnosis did for records by Pink Floyd and others. Considering that Scissor Sister covered Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" on the self-titled debut, would it be safe to say that there is a connection?
JS: (Jake Shears) it's definitely not a coincidence. We've always strove for that, especially with the first two records. Hipgnosis was always a huge influence for what we were doing. There's been a running theme on all of our sleeves. The link is there's always something happening in the middle and there's somebody turning away from you. We always wanted to keep that in line. The fact that we changed it from a person to an animal was another thing. We like our covers to have a subtle mystery and the color and mood that go along with it. "Night Work" was no exception. It's totally influenced by Hipgnosis. It's also a reference to the fact that we're still, fortunately or unfortunately, an album band. We still make albums. You definitely got it right; that link to classic rock and Hipgnosis.
GS: "Magic Hour" is being released domestically on Casablanca, a record label known for its association with the seminal days of disco music. Is this something significant to you and Scissor Sisters?
JS: We're happy to have a label in America that wants to put us out at all [laughs]. The record label game is… I don't know what it means anymore. It's super exciting to put it out on Casablanca, just because of the history. I'm happy that they revived the imprint, it's super cool. And I like our label-mates.
GS: Scissor Sisters are considered to be a New York band, but it sounds like California has found its way in on songs such as "San Luis Obispo" and "Year of Living Dangerously," which includes a mention of the "freeway," which conjures up Los Angeles. Is Southern California competing with New York for your attention?
JS: I think the world is competing for my attention, to be quite honest with you. And Southern California is definitely in there. I had some really amazing times in Southern California this last year and made some great friends. I love being in L.A. I also spent some time in San Francisco last year with the musical "Tales of the City." I have a hard time calling myself a New Yorker anymore. I live out of a suitcase and will continue to live out of a suitcase for quite a while. I have a house down in Tennessee now. I have a house in London now. I'm a bit all over the place [laughs].
GS: Drugs make a number of appearances throughout "Magic Hour" – in songs such as "Baby Come Home," "Keep Your Shoes On," "Inevitable" and "Shady Love." Is there cause for alarm?
JS: [Laughs] It depends on who you're asking and about whom. No, drugs have always been a theme through the lyrics that I write. I think they're ever present in our lives, whether it's alcohol or pot or club drugs or antidepressants or Ambien or whatever. Everybody's on something and they affect all of us in different ways. They can ruin lives, they can save lives. In American culture, especially, they're omnipresent. Substances and chemicals are everyplace, whether it's espresso or crystal meth, it's everywhere.
GS: "Let's Have a Kiki" is the kind of song that makes you to smile and dance at the same time. Is the voice mail message that opens the song real or was it scripted for the song?
JS: It's all improv. We wanted to create a setting, to set up a story for where you would have or why anyone would have a kiki or what would make you feel like having a kiki. Somebody's having a bad night but it's all going to be better when you go with your friends. We wanted to give it the setting before the song kicked in. It was important for us to set that place and that answering machine monologue was the device that we used to do it.
GS: It's very funny and effective.
JS: Thanks! It was all improv. We were literally in the studio with a cell phone in front of the microphone, with Ana in the next room calling one of our phones and recording all that.
GS: "Baby Come Home" and "Self Control" are a couple of songs that reflect relationship uncertainty, while "Best In Me" is a wonderful example of musical domestic bliss. Do you prefer writing and performing songs about healthy or unhealthy relationships?
JS: I think it's always much more challenging to write a happy, positive song. It's much more challenging to write a positive song than a negative one. It's a lot harder to write something uplifting than it is to write something melancholic. It's really hard to write something uplifting about subject matter that's really a bummer. That's my favorite thing. To write happy sounding songs about things that aren't necessarily that. My answer would be that I like writing happy sounding songs about relationships and situations that are necessarily something to get happy about.
GS: When I interviewed you a few years ago about Scissor Sisters' second album, we talked a bit about your literary interests, including Lewis Carroll and Michael Cunningham, and the song "The Secret Life of Letters" on "Magic Hour" is another good example of your flair for the literary. Do you have a book in you?
JS: I do. That's what I always thought I was going to do. I always thought I was going to be a writer. That's what I went to school for. Ever since I could put a sentence together, I started writing stories as a little kid. I kept writing them and wrote stories all my life. I still do. That's what I was aiming for. I love genre fiction. I'm a huge reader, I'm a book collector. I love literature, highbrow and lowbrow. I always think about it and I hope so. It's one of my dreams.
GS: We look forward to reading it someday. 2012 has seen the loss of a number of important musical icons, including dance music legends such as Donna Summer, Whitney Houston and Robin Gibb. Do you have any thoughts or comments?
JS: I think when stuff like that happens, it makes me reflect on what an artist has brought to the culture, to pop culture, to the world, and how they've influenced and inspired people. It's a great moment to reflect on that and honor those people for what they've done in their lifetime. It also just reminds me of everyone's mortality. When it all comes down to it, Whitney Houston was just a person; as are all of us, as are any of the biggest legends that are around and will live and die. We're all just people, nobody's superhuman, nobody's immortal. There's nobody that's a deity, everyone goes. It constantly reminds me, especially with Whitney's death in particular, that were all just people. There are some that do incredible work and it's great to honor the work that they've done when something like that happens. But it definitely just makes me think of mortality and the fact nobody lives forever, but the music can.
GS: Scissor Sisters are known for their amazing live shows. What can fans expect from the Magic Hour tour?
JS: it's so exciting, does he get to throw out a lot of songs that we played for 10 years! There are going to be some songs that people will not hear [laughs] that they might expect to, which is thrilling for the band [laughs]. Having four albums now, it's like, "oh my God, we don't have to play this song anymore!" It really feels like a brand-new show, just because we've brought in album tracks from previous albums that haven't been heard in a long time. Likewise, there are songs that have been heard throughout our tours the last 10 years that we have taken out of the show and replaced with really amazing stuff off "Magic Hour." The set list is wicked! It's really cool! The way the songs flow into each other is really amazing and the music direction is amazing, I think. There's more choreography. I think people will have a blast. It's a fun show. I know the band has been having a blast playing these songs.