Feature Interview :: Chicks On Speed
February 28th 2014
“Chicks On Speed do not admit defeat.” This music and art ensemble has never been too focused on how their work is accepted by the public. In fact, they believe they’ve always gone too far and been too loud – it’s their form of expression.
And if the release of their new record UTOPIA is anything to go off; these ladies aren’t slowing down any time soon.
I had the opportunity to speak with both Melissa Logan and Alex Murray-Leslie separately via Skype. Melissa was in Hamburg and Alex was in Barcelona; casually picking up the Reactable Bjork toured with in 2007, to be part of their Exhibition JAM-arrama at MCA Art Bar. We talked all things UTOPIA, new interfaces for musical expression, and underwater microphones in fishbowls.
A New Yorker and an Australian walk into a bar. Potentially the start of a lame joke, this was actually the foundation for Chicks On Speed. Melissa Logan (NY) and Alex Murray-Leslie (AUS) met at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts in a contemporary jewellery making class. In 1997, they began to run their own bar called ‘Seppi Bar’ to escape the monotony of Munich. Alex says, “It was a pretty bourgeois sort-of town, a very great town actually. It was really the sort of place where when you’re at art school, you’d rather be in Berlin. [laughs]”
Seppi Bar was based on the Dada-esque, Cabaret Voltaire – and from there, these ladies honed in on their electronic music skills. Weekly parties began in underground, and illegal, spaces behind the opera house, in containers and army barracks. Through good pal Upstart, they released their first mixtape and Chicks On Speed were born in 1997 – an electronic duo with an artistic and conceptual edge. Melissa says, “We felt that art itself was quite isolating in a world that was…glamorous to a certain extent, but we needed more reality if it was also with funny pop, something more meaningful – feminism, activism. It was an interest to really experience the world and not to isolate oneself that drove us.”
Seventeen years, and six albums later, Chicks On Speed are set for the release of their next album UTOPIA. With an array of collaborations and unique object instrumentation – the ladies have also created six iPad Apps in conjunction with the album release. And it all began with one high-heeled shoe guitar.
Performing the song, “We Don’t Play Guitars” with an actual guitar seemed misfitting; so with the help of Max Kibardin, a shoe designer from Milan, Chicks On Speed created their own sonic interpretation. “I think for electronic music, playing these instruments that have been around for hundreds of years, it doesn’t really make sense anymore…with all this modern technology that you have.”
If adding an e-shoe to your footwear collection sounds appealing – that could become a digital reality. The original went on to become an e-shoe, a wireless shoe with circuitry to trigger various parameters within a synthesizer. Alex and Melissa wanted everyone to have a piece of the action, “It’s like music, you make one song but it gets distributed everywhere – which is the beauty of music and why we started in that area and didn’t just stay in the art world. So we made the e-shoe into this hyper real instrument, that’s even better in the iPad and it has really influenced our work in a way that now our shows have opened up to a certain type of participatory democracy.
The audience can also interact with us on stage, which is really nice because we’ve always set out to break down this barrier of audience and performer and this so-called ‘hierarchy.’”
Six apps will be released alongside UTOPIA on May 2, with each having a different functionality on stage. The much-anticipated album features unique collaborations with leading contemporary artists, activists and producers, including Yoko Ono and Julian Assange. Alex describes the collaboration with Assange as one of the most interesting and emotional experiences. “You’re going to visit someone who’s trapped in a room almost. They’ve set it up really well, and he’s got people going to visit him almost every day and he’s doing amazing work there. He’s still fighting, so it’s really important what Julian is doing. But to go in and work on something, then go out and you can’t go out with that person – it was just really sad.”
Chicks On Speed have stepped into a different territory of a more serious type of electronica with UTOPIA, in what was “an incredible journey of ups and downs and a lot of travelling.”
Invited to record at the ZKM Centre for Art and Media in Germany, Melissa says, “it was interesting because we’ve had connections with people working in this type of electronic music – it was nice to also work in this environment and get our foot in the door.”
“Having that support of such a big art institution and working with so many fantastic people there with really great sound systems, microphones and also just being able to then have the time to tweak sound effects on vocals or instruments.” Alex says, “We were actually developing the apps at the same time, so it was really this 360 process workshop going on around the actual production of the record.”
As far as instrumentation, UTOPIA has definitely been the most experimental – with not only the use of iPads, but underwater microphones, body sensor suits, cigar box synthesisers and the aforementioned shoe guitar. And you have the chance to play with these apps before their official release!
Chicks On Speed will curate the next MCA ARTBAR driven by Audi, titled JAM-arrama, held on February 28. Melissa and Alex will be joined by Melbourne electro drummer Erica Lewis, and plan to “turn the MCA into this crazy jam session where people can come and interact with different sensors and self made musical instruments.”
UTOPIA will be launch first in Australia, and Sydney audiences will be treated with their performance at FBi Social on March 14. Chicks On Speed say they’re looking forward to the shows, which Melissa joking predicts will be, “Very conceptual, very quiet and unplugged.”
According to Alex:
“We’re tuning it in and out of different environments and atmospheres, and we expect the audience to come with us on this epic journey.”
WHAT :: JAM-arrama! (18+ only)
WHERE :: MCA Artbar
WHEN :: Friday February 28, 7-11pm
HOW MUCH :: $25 on the door, subject to availability
WHAT :: Chicks On Speed ‘UTOPIA’ Album Launch + Scraps
WHERE :: FBi Social
WHEN :: Friday March 14, 8pm
HOW MUCH :: $35 (more info here)