By Jimmy Draper
'WHY ISN'T THERE lesbian dance music?" Bernie Bankrupt, speaking over the phone from her home in Montreal, asks with frustration.
As the electronic mastermind behind Lesbians on Ecstasy, one of today's only lezzie dance acts, Bankrupt knows all too well about the dearth of dyke-made music in the electronic world. So why wouldn't she feel irritated? After all, queer artists such as Tracy and the Plastics, Scream Club, and Le Tigre's J.D. Samson may be slowly making inroads in the dance scene, but even after the female-friendly electroclash explosion, lesbians are still musical anomalies at the discotheque. Lesbians on Ecstasy, as their name implies, hope to change that.
"People revisit a lot of music that was done in the 1970s and '80s and turn it into dance-floor house music, but nobody's done that with lesbian music," Bankrupt continues. "It just seems like a fun thing to explore what lesbian dance music would sound like and since it was obviously gonna take a bunch of lesbians to try it, we knew we were the girls for the job!"
Culling from the history of dyke music, the quartet keyboardist Bankrupt, vocalist Fruity Frankie, bassist Véronique Mystique, and drummer Jackie the Jackhammer are a cover band of sorts. Instead of recording straightforward remakes, however, they sample themes and lyrics from their predecessors' folk- and rock-oriented songs, recontextualizing them as rather genius dance hits. "Constant Craving," by k.d. lang, becomes a scorching anticonsumerist manifesto, while selections from Team Dresch's "Screwing Yer Courage" and the Indigo Girls' "Prince of Darkness" are nearly unrecognizable when set to explosive, original beats.
"Basically, we want to bridge gaps between generations," Bankrupt says. "We want to make music for the older and younger sets that, if they came out to the party and heard it, would feel like it's sort of familiar but also sort of new."
Close encounter over Etheridge
Formed in early 2003, Lesbians on Ecstasy began after a chance encounter with an old Melissa Etheridge song. Though ensconced in Montreal's dude-heavy electronic scene a far cry from the lesbian music circles of their past Bankrupt and Frankie found themselves at a friend's birthday party when a woman launched into an acoustic cover of Etheridge's "Like the Way I Do." "We were just sitting there, suddenly listening to this type of music we never hear anymore," Bankrupt says. "We were both like, 'Wow, this would make an amazing dance hit!' "
That realization prompted the two women to start looking at their record collections in a new light, searching for other lesbian songs they could retool into full-fledged dance anthems. In an effort to move away from being so sequencer- and sampler-based, they enlisted a drummer and bassist and, almost immediately, made their live debut at the Canadian feminist technology festival Maid in Cyberspace. "After [the festival], we thought, 'Let's just take the concept and keep going with it,' " Bankrupt says. "There are lots of lesbian songs out there!"
The result is Lesbians on Ecstasy's self-titled debut (Alien8 Recordings), an impressive maelstrom of dark, distorted techno, glitchy pop, and electropunk that subverts and perverts a slew of dyke classics. In their hands, "Like the Way I Do" is transformed into a slab of throbbing, electro-lesbo lust, while the title of Tracy Chapman's "Talkin' 'bout a Revolution" becomes the feminist riot-inciting chorus of "Revolt." In fact, the references are so abundant Tribe 8, Parachute Club, Rough Trade, Fifth Column, etc. that the album is ultimately both a crash course in the history of lezzie music and a rousing game of lesbian-spotting for longtime fans.
"Some people will recognize the Indigo Girls, and some people will recognize Fifth Column," Bankrupt says, then laughs. "Of course, some people will recognize all of it."
Despite the past's heavy influence on their music, however, Lesbians on Ecstasy aren't merely retro revivalists. Sure, many contemporary dance acts make their names by ironically covering inane nostalgia like the Cars' "Just What I Needed" and Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night," but Lesbians on Ecstasy by revisiting music that was highly politicized to start with offer a welcome reprieve from their peers' vapid, apolitical posturing.
Indeed, it's hard to think of many if any other electronic acts today who'd cover songs by Etheridge and Tribe 8, much less "Prince of Darkness," a song penned by the Indigo Girls in 1989 that remains as relevant as ever with lyrics like, "Someone's got his finger on the button in some room / No one can convince me we aren't gluttons for our doom." In other words, contrary to much of the mindless revelry you're likely to encounter under the strobe light these days, Lesbians on Ecstasy are a reminder that music's politics and pleasures can't, in fact, be separated.
"By relistening to older music, it makes you examine where we're at in the world," Bankrupt says. "With our songs, we want to question what's going on with social struggles, to see how things are changing or how they're not changing. Sometimes maybe we're deceived into thinking things are changing when actually [we're facing] the same struggles."
Thanks in no small part to Lesbians on Ecstasy, there's at least one struggle for dyke visibility on the dance floor that's truly making headway.
Lesbians on Ecstasy perform Nov. 18, 9 p.m., Eagle Tavern, 398 12th St., S.F. Call for price. (415) 626-0880; and with Le Tigre Nov. 19, 9 p.m., Fillmore, 1805 Geary, S.F. $20. (415) 346-6000.