The Scissor Sisters have been chosen to represent the United States of America at the Olympics. “Marathon freestyle gossip is our event,” announces laconic frontwoman Ana Matronic. “We’re going for gold.”
Actually, they headline the American stage at the BT River of Music, a weekend of free concerts celebrating music from around the world as part of the Cultural Olympiad. “It’s kind of crazy,” admits Matronic (real name Ana Lynch). “It an amazing demonstration of the way Britain has embraced us. If the Olympics were being held in America, I seriously doubt whether we would be in the running. They would have chosen [country duo] Brooks & Dunn or [cheesy Canadian rock band] Nickelback, or somebody like that. But I think we make great ambassadors for American pop. As one of the first American bands with openly gay members, we embody the pioneer spirit. We are manifest destiny in action.”
“I’m just not sure we would carry the whole country with us on that,” adds the band’s co-frontman, Jake Shears (aka Jason Sellards). Following the polarised reaction to their president’s support for gay marriage, you can see he might have a point.
“Half of America would be excited,” insists Matronic. “The other half would be…”
“Disgusted?” suggests Shears.
“No, more like, ‘who the hell are the Scissor Sisters?’?”
Matronic bats a set of giant false lashes. With shiny red hair framing her face, eyes a riot of purple mascara and lips glistening scarlet, she is fully made up as a cartoonish band character, a cross between a Hollywood vamp and a wisecracking drag queen. “My eyelids get a workout wearing these lashes,” she mock complains. “I’m in training for the day they recognise make-up application as an Olympic event.”
Shears, the band’s principle singer and songwriter (with multi-instrumentalist Babydaddy, aka Scott Hoffman) is soft-spoken and almost reserved by comparison. Discussing what this eccentric outfit are actually like as a working unit in the studio, Matronic cuts through some vague waffle about “the creative process” to say “Jake and Babydaddy worry about every little thing. It’s like active, full-body, deep-tissue neurotic.”
But, says Shears, “It is a lot of fun being in the Scissor Sisters.” Matronic is adamant: “I think we get to have more fun than anybody else out there. If we want to get stark raving mad, nobody will bat an eye. It’s just built into who we are as a band.”
The Scissor Sisters are about to release their fourth album, Magic Hour. This is big news in Britain, where the band are chart-topping multimillion-sellers whose 2004 self-titled debut remains among the bestselling albums of the century. Their outrageous image and camp, clever combination of Seventies soft-rock-tinged songwriting with modern club beats made them a kind of perversely credible favourite of a mainstream, adult audience: the pop band it was OK for rock fans to love. “In the UK, you still have the attitude that if it’s good, it will be a hit,” says Matronic. “In the States, a hit is something that gets played on the radio. You have to dig elsewhere for the good stuff.”
America’s resistance to their charms hardly seems surprising for a group who started out on the New York gay scene in 2000 as an electroclash duo by the name of Dead Lesbian and the Fibrillating Scissor Sisters. “It was quirky and weird and I was convinced nobody would get it,” admits Matronic. Yet underpinning the giddy madness of the band’s pop sensibility there is real melodic, lyrical and emotional intelligence at work on songs that celebrate the spirit of eccentricity.
Their hit singles to date have spanned the defiant hedonism of Filthy/Gorgeous and the touching compassion of Mary, a ballad addressed to a suffering friend. Following a foray deep into dance music for their third album, Night Work, their new offering sees them back in poppier territory. Shady Love, released on the internet earlier this year, was a throbbing, sexy electro rap featuring girl-of-the-moment Azealia Banks, while the first official single from the new album, Only the Horses (released yesterday), is a piano-driven stomper about enduring friendship.
“Lord knows, I love a brainless pop song,” admits Shears. “If we are in the studio laughing or it gives me goose bumps, that’s what’s I find satisfying. Sometimes it is really stream of consciousness but if I am writing about anything, it’s friendship, relationships, loved ones. The songs are meaningful to me.”
“Jake is an adept writer of gibberish,” adds Matronic, who offers a typically imperious lead vocal on Let’s Have a Kiki, in which she promises to “spill tea and dish just deserts” over a throbbing techno beat. “A kiki is a drag queen term,” she explains. “It can mean gossip, or it can mean a good time with your friends. You can have a kiki anywhere. Technically we are having a kiki right now.”
If anyone represents the provocatively confusing identity of the Scissor Sisters, it is Matronic. Her parents’ marriage broke up after her father came out as gay, and he died of an Aids-related illness when she was 15. She has claimed she became immersed in the gay scene to feel closer to her father, making a living as an ersatz drag queen (a woman impersonating a man impersonating a woman). She is, in fact, heterosexual and, in 2010, married her long-term boyfriend, Seth Kirby. “We are who we are,” she says. “If there is a point to the band, that is probably it. We’ve never been good at planning. I plan my hair, and that’s about as far as I get.”
It seems likely that their flamboyant image has held them back in their home country. “I’m sure it has, but I don’t worry about it,” says Shears, who is in a long-term relationship with a film-maker he refers to as his husband. “I accepted a long time ago that there would be bumps along the road.” Last year, they toured the US as support to Lady Gaga, a fan of the band who has become increasingly involved in gay rights issues, although (like Matronic).
“It is much easier to swallow the pill of gay rights when it is packaged in the form of a pretty girl,” suggests Matronic. “I think at the heart of it lies a fear of male sexuality, and especially male homosexuality, that is threatening in many ways.”
She cites the example of 2009 American Idol winner, Adam Lambert, who caused controversy when he kissed his bassist during a performance, leading to condemnation from parental groups and cancellation of scheduled television appearances. “It was crazy. On morning television they showed the famous kiss between Britney Spears and Madonna but when they switched to Adam Lambert, they blurred it out. So it’s fine to show hot chicks kissing but if it’s a couple of guys, it’s going to ruin our children.”
“Imagine if Justin Timberlake and Justin Bieber kissed at the Grammys,” proposes Shears. “It would be completely preposterous.”
The idea seems to amuse them both enormously, and they idly speculate about which pop stars might be tempted to join in. It is typical of the Scissor Sisters to treat the whole matter as a joke. For all their campness, they seem among the least militant of gay pop stars. “All I really care about is making great music and putting on great shows,” says Shears. “I think to do that you have to be fearless. It certainly doesn’t help to be insecure.”
“We strive to make our time in this band good for ourselves and for others,” says Matronic. “To be able to do what we do, and put smiles on the faces of people, is a blessing. To make good times for people, keep them going, change their day around, it’s an amazing thing.”
“I get a little teary on stage sometimes,” admits Shears. “It can be really emotional when it dawns on you that people are singing along and having fun.”
“That is the mission statement!” says Matronic. “Throw your hands in the air/ And wave them around like you just don’t care.”