LUSCIOUS JACKSON has sometimes been called the Beastie Boys' ladies auxiliary. The New York band, which became a trio last year with the departure of keyboardist Vivian Trimble, records for the Beasties' Grand Royal label (distributed by Capitol), and drummer Kate Schellenbach played in an early, pre-rap edition of the Beasties. Lately, however, Luscious Jackson has been spending more time with the girls than the Boys.
Now on a tour with Cibo Matto that comes to the 9:30 club Tuesday, Luscious Jackson recently concluded a stint with Lilith Fair. "We had a great time," says singer, bassist and sometime guitarist Jill Cunniff by phonefrom Columbus, Ohio. "We're sad that this is the last one. We hope there's another tour like that, if not a women's tour, at least one that's that well run."
Cunniff's enthusiasm for Lilith doesn't mean that Luscious Jackson has gone folkie. She notes that her band shared its segment of this year's tour with the Pretenders, Beth Orton and Sandra Bernhard. "It was not as ethereal as its reputation," Cunniff says. "We definitely heard a lot of dirty jokes."
The tour's female-bonding spirit continues on Luscious Jackson's new "Electric Honey," which includes vocals by such guests as Emmylou Harris, N'dea Davenport and Deborah Harry, who first met the band at a WHFS festival. "At Lilith, a lot of people came up to play," Cunniff explains. "It's really fun. And so a little bit of that continued onto the album."
The album also features another guest singer, one the band didn't meet at Lilith Fair: Kym Hampton, who plays with the New York Liberty, the WNBA team avidly supported by Schellenbach and singer-guitarist Gabrielle Glaser. "She's a great singer," Cunniff says. "In fact, I think this is her last year with the Liberty. She's going to try a singing career."
Cunniff also co-wrote a song, "Sweet Spot," that will appear on an Emmylou Harris-Linda Ronstadt album due later this year. "I think it sounds like a Emmylou-Luscious song," the bassist says. "It has a drum 'n' bass feel to the rhythm. It's not what people expect from her. She was really excited, because she's very much into pushing boundaries."
On a less experimental note, the band has recorded a version of the "Brownie Smile" song to promote the brown-clad pre-Girl Scouts. "We changed the melody and the music, but kept the lyrics," Cunniff says. The band expects to appear in a TV public service announcement that will feature the song.
With their street-smart rhythms and smart-aleck lyrics, Luscious Jackson didn't initially come on like a group of Girl Scouts. "Electric Honey," however, tempers the band's initial brattiness with a glossier, more melodic style. To reproduce the album's sound, the trio is touring with three supplementary players, keyboardist Singh Birdsong, DJ Alex Young and Tia Sprocket, who alternates between bass and percussion. (The latter two musicians also appear on the album.)
"I switch between bass and guitar," Cunniff says. "And between samplers and the DJ, we get all those weird sounds" heard on the album.
Young also helped the group get some weird sounds in the studio, where he co-produced two "Electric Honey" songs. Other producers include Tony Visconti, who's best-known for his David Bowie credits; Eels and Beck collaborator Mickey Petralia; and Tony Mangurian, who's worked with Luscious Jackson since its 1992 debut, "In Search Of Manny." Still, either Cunniff or Glaser has a co-production credit on every track.
"I wrote 15 to 20 songs," Cunniff says, "and our A&R guy said, `Why don't you use a lot of different producers like they do on a rap album?' We didn't have the money to hire those sort of producers, but it was a good idea because the songs were so eclectic."
That Luscious Jackson is even still making albums for a major label is a blessing, Cunniff realizes. "Looking at what's happened to other bands recently, it's pretty scary. We've been really lucky," she says. She credits former Capitol president Gary Gersh for the artistic philosophy that let the band mature. "The belief was that artists should grow into their full talent. And that bands should have artistic control."
Luscious Jackson benefits from the fact that its albums are released by both Capitol and Grand Royal. "Everything has to go by both parties," Cunniff says. But the band owes much of its success to its own hard work. "We're just plugging away. We just have to keep touring. We're not one of those bands that's going to be big right out of the box."
Although its music is rooted in the hip-hop and punk that its members absorbed as precocious teenage New York club kids in the early-'80s, such new Luscious Jackson songs as Cunniff's "Ladyfingers" and Glaser's "Friends" have a slicker style that appeals to the VH1 demographic. "That's definitely where we're headed," says Cunniff unapologetically.
Of course, the new audience in part reflects the fact that popular taste has caught up with the band's approach. "Everybody uses loops now," Cunniff laughs. "It doesn't define you as a juvenile delinquent."
A recent profile in Spin magazine portrayed the band as being "grown-up," a description that might worry some rockers, but Cunniff accepts the tag. "I think we are pretty grown-up," she says. "That's why we're glad we went to Lilith Fair." She pauses for a beat. "And that's why we're glad we didn't go to Woodstock."
LUSCIOUS JACKSON -- Appearing with Cibo Matto Saturday at the Recher Theater in Towson and Tuesday at the 9:30 club. * To hear a free Sound Bite from "Electric Honey," call Post-Haste at 202/334-9000 and press 8109. (Prince William residents, call 690-4110.)