It’s been 22 years—well, two decades and one global pandemic—since the release of The Teaches Of Peaches, Peaches’ groundbreaking, brazenly sexual electroclash debut album, best known for birthing the explosively catchy “Fuck The Pain Away,” and she’s as busy as ever. At least, it seems that way: I’ve been trying to track her down for an interview since last spring, journeying to two very different Peaches shows over a three-month period. She’s been touring Teaches on its 20th anniversary, and I’ve been chasing her: first at a short, midday set at Pasadena’s early-2000s revival festival Just Like Heaven back in May, and then at the second of her two back-to-back shows at the Fonda Theater in Hollywood in late August. There, she danced inside a gigantic, blimp-like condom, playfully commanding the crowd to “put your fucking phones down,” and hold her feet above their heads so she could walk across the room. She played her flying-v guitar with pelvic thrusts, and inspired a sea of powerful, sexual, controlled chaos. She fucking ruled.
I danced. I screamed along. I took in looks of unadulterated happiness on the faces of others in the crowd. I marveled at the many creative ways that boobs and vulvas were incorporated into her career-spanning costumes, how they were expertly lifted on and off her body between songs by a gorgeous troupe of dancers and band members. Peaches shows in 2022 are just as fun and XXX-rated, if not more so, than they were in the early 2000s. And the general theme of sexual and bodily empowerment feels stronger than ever, too. One of her tamer tour costumes was a simple, black bodysuit that says, “THANK GOD FOR ABORTION.” Even in our dystopian post-Roe V. Wade reality, I can say that screaming “ONLY DOUBLE-A, THINKING TRIPLE-X!” in a crowd is a pretty solid way to feel good. If the pursuit of pleasure means it’ll take a few months for Peaches to hop on a fucking Zoom call with me, then hell, who am I to lack patience?
Before her Minneapolis show a week after the Fonda gig, Peaches’ disembodied voice materializes before me. She’s got 30 minutes. That’s fine: I’ve got a lifetime of preparation. As we make our way through awkward Zoom hellos, she instructs me to call her Peaches. (Her real name is Merrill Nisker. She explains that Peaches is an amplified perspective of herself in entertainer mode, which makes sense. Merrill is Clark Kent, and I’m speaking with Superman.)
Superman to me, anyway: I tell her about the time I first saw Peaches live, back in 2006. I was in my senior year of high school, and I went to see the Impeach My Bush tour (the album that came out directly after The Teaches Of Peaches) at Empire, a little club in Sacramento that is now called Ace Of Spades. It was the 99th show of the tour, so she surprised the crowd by doing an all-request night, where people could scream out song titles from a giant list on a whiteboard onstage. Halfway through the show she told everybody to shut up, pointed at me, and asked for my request. I screamed, “ROCK THE SHOCKER!” (I was 17, so naturally I thought the shocker was hilarious, but also that song rules.) She yelled, “GOOD CHOICE!” and played it, making not only my night, but also maybe my teenage life at the time.
“Aww, that is such a cute story! I haven’t played “Rock The Shocker” in so long!” she laughs at my anecdote, out of pity or kindness, I’ll let you be the judge.
Clearly, I’m a fan. And when I joke that my editor warned me not to get “too high-minded” with my questions—this is CREEM, we have a legacy of goofballery and acerbic takes to uphold—she offers guidance.
“You know what I say, Cat? I say do whatever you want.” She responds without hesitation, unintentionally perfectly identifying the spirit of CREEM. “I’m sure it’ll appeal to the magazine, and if they don’t like it that’s a problem. For them.” In less than a minute of talking, she distilled the essence of two-plus decades of Peaches—who is now 55—and served it to me in a shot glass. She’s got a bite like lighter fluid down the gullet and she doesn’t mince words, and this conversation is 80 proof–with a kick. But her delivery is like that of a punk-rock fairy godmother: maternal, protective, and maybe a little over music journalists coloring inside the fucking lines.
Every anecdote is a surprise, and here’s the first one: when I ask her to tell me a little about her life leading up to the creation of The Teaches Of Peaches, she says it’s a “breakup” album. She left her longtime partner, moving out of the home they shared in Toronto, and wrote a record.
Oh, and she had thyroid cancer. “Which for me wasn't a bad cancer to have, to be honest,” she says, “But it made me also think, ‘What do I want to do with my life? I really want to do music, I want to pursue this.’ That’s also why the breakup happened, and stuff like that. So it was a very intense time, but I didn’t want to make an album that was, like, victim or sad. I was like, ‘No, I’m going to tell myself that this is okay. I’m going to get over this—this is what I’m doing.’ So that was the point of it, to be very self-empowering.”
And so she got to work, creating an album that felt, well, empowering—with synths. “I want[ed] to have music that’s a rock attitude and a rock presentation in terms of really being powerful onstage, but I didn’t want to have traditional instruments for rock.” So, she carved out her own genre comprised of that rock-god stage presence, female-centric sex anthems, and punk sensibilities paired with electronic sounds. And she produced it.
“I was feeling a lot. Changing a lot. And trying to also be really authentic with myself… where am I at, really?” she reflects. “Let’s really say what we feel. And also I didn’t want to be a victim, like, ‘Oh, a breakup, poor me.’”
(Now, Peaches is giving an Academy Award winning fake-sob performance, boo-hoo-hooing like a YouTuber accused of ripping off a small business.)
On a broader level, Peaches knew she was onto something with The Teaches Of Peaches, and that her sex-positive, queer-forward vision was largely at odds with the straight, white, cisgender boy bands that made up most of the rock ’n’ roll demographic and its corresponding media. Naturally, she brings up CREEM again.
“I was responding to a lot of, like, what CREEM [readers] were. All that ’70s music that was very male-gaze oriented,” she says. “I liked the music, but I was questioning, why am I listening to this music that centers around diminishing me as a woman? Or any way if I’m not a cis male?”
“I was responding to a lot of, like, what CREEM [readers] were."
She pauses, briefly redirecting an animated rant to point out that there were, of course, wildly successful bands like Queen and Judas Priest at time; artists that mainstream culture now canonizes as queer rock ’n’ roll proginators. But at the time, neither Freddie Mercury nor Rob Halford felt comfortable being open about their sexuality at the height of their fame. A “don’t-ask-don’t-tell type of vibe,” as Peaches describes it, is to blame: Freddie Mercury died before he ever had a chance to publicly come out, and Rob Halford’s coming-out began as an accidental slip-up during an MTV interview in 1998—which he has said was an immense relief. But they are the exception, not the rule. They’re also direct inspirations behind The Teaches Of Peaches songs like “Rock Show,” where Peaches openly mocked the “big, gigantic cock show” of the rock ’n’ roll world in 2000.
“I was like, let’s split this [dumb industry] wide open. Let’s be inclusive. There’s a lot of perspectives and why is the standard only this one narrow road of male gaze, male business?”
In an unofficial music video for “Fuck the Pain Away,” The Teaches of Peaches erotic opening track, Peaches, in pink hot pants and an “I HEART POT” tank top, reverts that gaze. She dances suggestively, playfully, a queering of burlesque meant for her enjoyment, first and foremost. “Suckin' on my titties like you wanted me/Calling me, all the time like Blondie,” she sings, grabbing her crotch, thrusting, “Check out my Chrissie behind/It's fine all of the time.” Twenty two years ago, and it might as well have been a message from the future.
In more ways than one. The misogyny Peaches constantly refers to, in the hard rock/heavy metal industry, was a tough boss to slay, even though she was opening for bands like Queens Of The Stone Age, Marilyn Manson, Bauhaus, and Nine Inch Nails early on in her career. “[My music] was very confusing to people. Especially rock audiences. They were like, ‘Is this music? Is this a joke? Is this performance art? What is she doing?’ You know?” she asks this rhetorically, but damn, yes. “It was very confusing for people. And that was the point. I knew I was doing something right.”
And yet, “Fuck The Pain Away” was primed to be a hit, and became ubiquitous in strip clubs, dance floors, gay bars, and in art and fashion spaces. But it was deemed unsuitable for radio play and certainly not fit for music video stations like MTV or VH1, despite the fact that "Closer” by Nine Inch Nails, with its lyrics of “I want to fuck you like an animal” and its heavy S&M imagery, spent more than half of the '90s in constant rotation on every rock radio station and MTV, at the same damn time.
“So you could get, ‘I want to fuck you like an animal’… but something like ‘fuck the pain away’ could not [get played],” she says with understandable incredulity. “They could just bleep out the word fuck!”
“People were still too scared that a woman was singing this,” she says. “Fuck the pain away.”
It’s not conjecture: at the time, Peaches heard countless stories of her freaky-deaky songs confusing conservatives. Apparently the dancers at a prominent strip club in the early 2000s—she thinks it was called Pleasures—were picking “Fuck The Pain Away” for their routines so often that the management called a meeting and forbid them from playing the song in the club anymore.
“They said, ‘You cannot play Peaches track one from The Teaches Of Peaches anymore because it is not comfortable for our male audience,’” she remembers. “Which makes me laugh.” Poor men, being forced to watch gorgeous women remove their clothing while dancing to a song about a woman enjoying sex. Sounds like torture.
Poor men, being forced to watch gorgeous women remove their clothing while dancing to a song about a woman enjoying sex. Sounds like torture.
Jokes on them: the song became inescapable in pop culture, making appearances in Lost In Translation, Jackass Number Two, True Blood, The Handmaid’s Tale, South Park, 30 Rock, and Sex Education.
“I heard stories, people would [go to] record companies and [they’d be like] we want you to be a little more like Peaches… but just 20 percent.” She says she’s heard that world-famous celebrities took influence from the song, too: “There was, like, Christina Aguilera being inspired and writing ‘Dirrty’… There was Britney Spears going from being a Disney kid and turning into a powerful, kickass, say-whatever-I-want [person] and also being inspired by ‘Fuck The Pain Away.’ And it wasn’t advertised or anything.”
They’re not the only ones: Radiohead’s Thom Yorke cites the track as a main influence for “15 Step”, a song on their 2007 record In Rainbows. And though the influence is not documented outright, it’s difficult to imagine deliciously explicit songs centering female sexuality (like, say, Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B’s “WAP”) reaching astronomical success (including video treatment and multiple edits for radio play) if not for “Fuck The Pain Away” spending the last two decades steeping in pop culture, getting stuck in our heads, and reminding us that seeking pleasure without shame will always be a source of power.
“I have this position where I did shift things,” she says. “And you can see it now in the 20-year-anniversary. You can see it in the audience that comes. I have really young people in half the audience, and the other half [has been] there from the beginning, you know, 40, 50… And you see the impact from 20 years [ago]. I always said, ‘I want the mainstream to come closer to me. I’m not gonna get more narrow or turn more watered-down.’”
That’s unmissable on the record. “I felt like I said things I needed to say and wanted to say in a very direct way,” she says. “And that set me free.”
On stage, at her 20 year anniversary shows, Peaches is a force in an oversized vulva hat, a prolapsed anus outfit that held herself and two of her dancers inside, and a bikini covered in tits—the costume changes were a marvel! Off stage, the crowd’s a cornucopia of weirdos, punks, goths, drag queens, strippers, leather daddies, and undercover freaks in button-ups dancing side-by-side, singing about getting their skittles diddled. It’s an outsider’s heaven in our current hell.
After turning cancer and a life-altering breakup into self-empowering, queer, feminist, sex-positive art that altered the course of culture as we know it, it feels like maybe we could use some more of Peaches’ Teaches these days. I knew I did, those nights I saw her perform. And so I ask her: in a time when everything feels terrible and seems like it can only get worse, what can we do to set ourselves free?
“Just have to fight the good fight,” she says with sincere conviction. “You have to find those moments and be positive and celebrate with the people who you feel comfortable with. Find your comfort levels, and really just hold on. That’s the best we can do.”