Musicians don't like their work being pigeonholed, ghettoized, or anything else that might keep their songs from reaching the largest number of people. But during a phone interview, don't you have to ask Scissor Sisters guitarist Derek Gruen, aka Del Marquis, if he and his bandmates were ever aiming directly for a gay audience? This is a group, after all, whose self-titled debut album resets Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" into an technofied wash of twinkly disco drugginess; that finds the hero of another track ("Laura") swearing, "This will be the last time I ever do your hair!"; a group that highlights falsettoed lead singer Jake Shears cooing that he's "a classy honey kissy huggy lovey dovey ghetto princess" on a cut called "Filthy/Gorgeous." Kylie Minogue wishes she sounded this gay. (Hell, the Sisters produced Kylie's latest single, "I Believe in You," and she still wishes she sounded this gay.) So was catching the homo ear a main concern for the Sisters?
"I think that was a given," laughs Gruen. "After that, we really had more ambition to reach a wider audience, without leaving our gay audience behind. We saw that we could become something bigger and something more universal."
They've timed it right in Dubya's America, actually, to do just that. Ever since their CD was released, the Sisters have been steadily gaining ground in a climate distinctly lacking in free-spirited fabulousness. The band rocks live—their last appearance in Seattle, at the Showbox, felt like a roaring, sexy party—but their sound is an addictive aural return to '70s club celebration. It's pumped-up pop with a spandex swagger, Music to Do Poppers By, the Best Songs Elton John Never Thought to Record. It's a retro sound that detractors say will keep them a one-off novelty act.
Gruen, though, sees the obvious influences as a key to continued success.
"Really, what it's about is the history of pop music," he says. "A good chorus is a good chorus, and a melody that is going to stay with you might sound like something that's already been around, but that's the point—that instant recognition, that instant attraction to melody and lyrics. That's a kind of craft. It's not an experimental album."
Neither is it calculated irony.
"Irony is not part of the game," Gruen explains. "We wanted to be a pop band, and I don't think there are that many pop bands, just pop singers. We just don't hold that same kind of rock and roll textbook that a lot of bands do. We came from different backgrounds."
Gruen studied furniture design while strumming his guitar in his bedroom ("My hobby and my job switched places, basically"), and he's not the only Sister with an unusual résumé.
"I knew of Jake because he used to be a stripper," Gruen says of the early days meeting lead singer and former Seattleite Shears (whose college major was fiction writing) in New York. "And it ended up my best friend was dating him at the time. And I was a guitar player, I was the same age, I was gay—not that that has an enormous amount of bearing, but it just seemed like a fit. I came down and played over a few songs, and a week later, I played my first show, and that was it."
Gruen actually entered the process midway through the game.
"It all happened ass-backwards," he says. "Really it was just [Shears and multi-instrumentalist Babydaddy] playing around in the studio without a goal, except possibly just to be onstage."
Fierce former cabaret hostess Ana Matronic, who lends live gigs the extra vocal and physical kick that makes Scissor Sisters shows such decadent bliss, was next on board.
"Ana was really the next logical progression as far as stage presence," says Gruen, before laughing about the inevitability of adding him and drummer Patrick "Paddy Boom" Seacor. "After that, they realized that to go anywhere else, they kind of needed a band. I had seen them perform, and the three of them would get up there and sing to their CD, which would be playing on the P.A., and it would be on a makeshift stage in a small bar. I guess you really have to have something more than that to move forward."
The band, Gruen remembers, took a while to realize its glittery aesthetic.
"I mean, if you looked at old pictures of us, we looked like a mess," he admits. "It all evolved over the year before the album was released. I think we all just have a love and appreciation of design and fashion, and we saw outfits and costumes as a way to amplify our personalities. Real simple things change your body language and the way you move."
Man, do they move. Shears has some of Mick Jagger's ambisexual magnetism, and he and Ms. Matronic's lusty generosity can turn a house into a happy, thumping, butt-shaking bash. It's taken all of them a bit by surprise.
"I don't know that we consciously knew that there would be a Scissor Sisters album on a major label [after just] a year," Gruen marvels. "The writing process just kept on going, as did performing, and once we realized that we might actually be decent and people would like us and pay money to see us—I don't know if anybody knew what they were getting into."
Probably not—but at least it didn't stop them from coming out swinging.
Scissor Sisters play Paramount Theatre at 8 p.m. Thurs., Jan. 27. $21–$23.