“Another kind of love.” A passing phrase in “Better Luck Next Time,” one of eleven tracks on Scissor Sisters‘ multimillion-selling debut album. Another kind of love is what the band brought to pop culture in 2004. Stories of club life, sex, freedom… taking your mother on the town to get her “jacked up on some cheap champagne.” Four men, one woman, and some seriously theatrical clothing.
The giddy energy and wit of the band’s songs, mixed with the buoyant personalities of vocalists Jake Shears and Ana Matronic, made the Sisters POP on the radio. Surrounded on the charts by acts like Keane, Robbie Williams, Franz Ferdinand and Maroon 5, they were a discoball with a lit fuse. To celebrate the tenth anniversary of their eponymous debut (released February 2, 2004), Idolator spoke with band’s songwriter Scott Hoffman, properly known to fans as Babydaddy, about the album’s recording and its resulting success.
Scissor Sisters formed in the club scene of turn-of-the-21st-century New York, with multi-instrumentalist Hoffman, Shears on lead vocals, guitarist Del Marquis, a drummer called Paddy Boom and Matronic as a ribald mistress of ceremonies/vocalist. From the start, they had a clear goal for the recording of Scissor Sisters: “We felt strongly that the album needed to be not only a manifesto of what Scissor Sisters were,” says Hoffman, “but also a full survey of where we started and where had had come by the time the album was complete.”
Scissor Sisters — ”Comfortably Numb”
Their first single, on indie label A Touch of Class, was the snarky “Electrobix.” It didn’t make the final tracklist, but when the band landed their UK contract with Polydor, that single’s b-side became the record that tipped them on the charts. Their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb” re-imagined the classic as a sinewy, falsetto-laden dance track. It went to #10 on the UK singles chart, but not without some initial doubts.
“We were proud of ourselves as songwriters and weren’t too keen to be known as ‘that band’ who was only known for a cover song,” Hoffman says.
A year later, in what he calls an “insane moment” in London’s Hyde Park, Hoffman and his bandmates finally came face to face with the rock legends. “We [met] Floyd at the Live 8 concert, first David Gilmour and the rest of the band minus Roger (Waters), and then Roger on his own,” he recalls. “They said they had had some sort of meeting in which they discussed whether our version was ‘ok’. Apparently it was.”
There’s a wind-up man walking round and round
From the very first track, “Laura,” it’s clear the album is going to have a sense of humor. After an intro that sounds like a lost Muppets theme, Shears starts telling stories. His observational skills are fine-tuned and he stacks these songs with the New York characters. From the self-referencing of Babydaddy on “Laura,” to the “acid junkie college flunky dirty puppy daddy bastard” in “Filthy/Gorgeous,” these are downtown tales unlike anything on the radio at the time.
Scissor Sisters — ”Laura”
The threads between the Sisters and the classics of pop rock are laced throughout the music. The immense guitar-and-piano single “Take Your Mama” has, to many ears, an early ’70s Elton John vibe. “I was a fan of Elton’s music,” recalls Hoffman, “but Jake wasn’t as familiar with the catalog at the time we made the album.” He says that it was actually the Elton comparisons that lead them to delve more into his music, “but not necessarily in time to influence the record too greatly.”
Scissor Sisters — ”Take Your Mama”
You gotta wrap your fuzzy with a big red bow
Scissor Sisters’ attitude was forthright, unashamed when it came to sexuality. The album’s stomping “Tits On The Radio,” (with a lyrical assist from Ana Matronic) brought us this wicked chorus: “You can’t see tits on the radio / I’ll give you five fingers for a one man show / Fasten those pants for the lap dance…”
“Filthy/Gorgeous,” Hoffman says, “was mostly about being yourself, with that message including, of course, sexual freedom.” It was a point of view the UK and Europe embraced more easily than their own homeland. The culture on the other side of the Atlantic was almost the inverse of America, which seemed repulsed by sex, yet glorified violence. In the UK, Hoffman says, “we had been told many times there could be no guns or cigarettes in any imagery.”
When I suggest that the album has a certain power, or even joy, in its gay sensibility, Hoffman responds thoughtfully. “The band was named after a term for lesbians, a few of us were openly gay men — Ana was a ‘drag queen trapped in a woman’s body’ — and we sang about all kinds of sex and love,” he says. “We talked about gay things. But the music we made was for everyone. To be called a ‘gay band’, on the other hand, always felt dismissive, like it was meant to pull us out of the mainstream.”
But they were the mainstream, certainly in the UK, where Scissor Sisters sold a hearty 2.5 million albums, making their debut the bestselling LP of 2004 — one that yielded five singles.
I’ll make the journey so sublime
Although the band is known for its up-tempo tracks, the album is grounded in measures of sweetness, melancholy and darkness. The stunning ballad “Mary” encapsulates Shears’ capacity for introspection: “Someday we’ll go round the world / I’ll make the journey so sublime / I know you’re not a travelin’” girl,” he sings lovingly to his real-life best friend. Hoffman says today, “I think it’s one of the most meaningful and honest things he has ever written.”
Scissor Sisters — “Mary”
Likewise, album closer “Return To Oz” goes deep into the meth-addled underside of modern nightlife, but it sets the tale in a sweep of ’70s rock music. Which was the point, according to Hoffman: “[Oz] was our attempt to write a ‘classic,’ epic rock song,” he says. “It probably spoke as much to Floyd as it did to a band like Ween.”
He continues: “We were fans of pop music through and through… we felt that we had accomplished what we had sought out to do: to make a great pop album that we hoped allowed us a chance to be a part of pop history.”
Listening to Scissor Sisters ten years on, the music brings back fizzy memories of the band bouncing onstage in feathers and too-tight-to-breathe pants. New York twentysomethings taking the world by the — to use a British term — bollocks.
For the man known onstage as Babydaddy, the songs bring back those early years…the journey, from playing New York clubs like The Cock to conquering the main stage at the legendary Glastonbury festival in England.
“As we drove away on our bus,” he remembers, “we found out our album had gone to #1.”