SCISSOR SISTERS SINGERS Jake Shears and Ana Matronic are an odd, outlandish couple, somewhere between Elton John/Kiki Dee pop duo and W.C. Fields/Mae West burlesque team, dressed by Bob Mackie on acid, underscored by a giddy swirl of '70s and '80s pop pastiches.
America has yet to succumb to the charms of this particular, decidedly peculiar musical/fashionista gumbo, though the New York-based quintet did recently manage a Grammy nomination for its rudely radical reinterpretation of Pink Floyd's downer drug ode "Comfortably Numb" as a falsetto-fueled Bee Gees-style disco anthem.
But while the group's eponymous debut has barely sold 150,000 copies here, it's sold 10 times that amount in England, where it went to No. 1 and became the year's biggest-selling album. Scissor Sisters were the only act with four Top 20 singles in the British charts, and that's not counting "I Believe in You," a year-end No. 2 for Kylie Minogue, co-written and produced by Shears (born Jason Sellards) and fellow Sister Babydaddy (Scott Hoffman).
There's another aspect of the band that gets noticed: Drummer Paddy Boom (Patrick Seacor) is the only straight man in a group originally called Dead Lesbian and the Fibrillating Scissor Sisters, and even Matronic likes to describe herself as a drag queen trapped inside a woman's body. The shortened name is a slang term for a lesbian sexual position, as well as the group's literal logo, and while many of the songs on "Scissor Sisters" have gay themes, Shears says that Scissor Sisters don't want to be tabbed as a gay band. They are first and foremost a pop band, brilliant enough to be currently courted for future projects by Elton John and Robbie Williams.
While there are gay-themed songs on the album -- "Take Your Mama" is about letting mom know you're gay, "Return to Oz" a lament for a gay community plagued by crystal meth -- "the music transcends gay," Shears says.
"I really hope it does because I'm not interested in just singing about gay things. I like to have that mask on it where it can be interpreted in multiple ways. I'm not interested in alienating anybody, and we're very conscious about that when we're writing lyrics. And it's all fiction. A lot of these songs are just stories, and it can be something that has nothing to do with my life or anybody I know, but transcends gay and straight. I could sing about heterosexual romance just as easily as anything else and it would still be interesting to me," he says.
In New York, the group first made a name for itself at the Brooklyn club Vox, center of the trendy but short-lived turn-of-the-millennium electroclash scene with such acts as Fischerspooner and Peaches. But the music Shears and Babydaddy were coming up with seemed to have a wider reach: '70s singer-songwriter craftsmanship mixing with disco camp and stadium rock, punk attitude melding with new romantic couture, transatlantic influences revisited with sincerity and authority rather than kitsch coyness.
"It just naturally evolved," Shears insists. "When we first started making music we were in the heat of the electroclash scene, making really simple electro dance songs, and I think we discovered we were capable of quite a bit more than that. I think we're one of the only survivors of that scene to have made it out alive!"
Shears first met multi-instrumentalist Babydaddy in 1999 while visiting a mutual friend in Kentucky; a year later, they reconnected in New York, where both were going to college.
"We were big music fans and would go to concerts together and talk about music. We were both really into electronic music at the time -- shared a love of Aphex Twin and Mouse on Mars -- but for years we never talked about making it," Shears says. "I remember Scott telling me he'd started playing around with a home studio and wanted me to write some lyrics. I thought it was a cute idea, but it just sort of laid there for a while. One day I ended up going down to his apartment and we started playing around. It's addictive: When you have fun like that you want to go back and do it again, so we started meeting up regularly and making songs."
Getting serious about it was not on anyone's agenda. After all, Shears was anticipating a course in journalism, and, like many journalists, supporting himself as a go-go dancer and stripper.
"All my life I always liked to be on stage," admits Shears, 26. "But the majority was theater at my high school gong show and dancing when I got to New York." Shears was aiming to become an entertainment writer -- he was doing a six-month internship at Paper magazine during his last semester at New School University's Eugene Lang College -- when 9/11 occurred. "It felt like there was going to be no magazines hiring editorial staff for quite a while," he says.
By then he and Hoffman had started doing occasional dates as a duo, including at a Lower East Side club whose cabaret night, Knock Off, was hosted by performance artist Matronic (Ana Lynch), herself no slouch in the flamboyance department (she sports a shoulder tattoo that looks like robot wiring. After just a few gigs, the trio was signed to indie label A Touch of Class, eventually becoming a quintet with the addition of rhythm guitarist Del Marquis (Derek Gruen) and Paddy Boom. Their first 12-inch single, "Electrobix," had as its second B-side track that quirky version of "Comfortably Numb."
"It was sort of hidden because we didn't want to be known for a cover song," Shears says. "We didn't intend for that song to do anything; we just made it for fun." But it ended up on a compilation given away by London's chic Hotel Pelirocco, which has themed rooms for performance art legend Leigh Bowery, '50s pinup Bettie Page and the Sex Pistols, among others. Pretty soon, "Comfortably Numb" made its way to English radio, which is far more open-minded and adventurous than its American counterpart and rose to No. 10. The band signed with the British label Polydor and was rewarded with a No. 1 album, which was released in America six months later.