The first show I saw in Chicago was the Scissor Girls. I was living in the miserable Roosevelt University dorms…and art school life wasn’t matching what I envisioned in my head. I was surrounded by hacky-sack playing douche bags and preening rich kids in a downtown that closed up at 6 pm. The art being produced at the school wasn’t anything too inspiring either- it was all very safe, very mundane. I wondered what the fuck I was doing…flushing thousands of dollars down the toilet for an essentially worthless degree. When I saw the strange and mysterious Dada/punk rock flyer hanging on a school bulletin board for a show on the near west side- I knew I had to go…especially when one of the bands was called “Scissor Girls”, a name which conjured up fantastic violent imagery for me.
The show took place at the Hub Theatre…an old atmospheric style theatre that had run into disrepair and was coated with a thick layer of black paint to seal in the crumbling plaster. The show was thinly attended and everyone lounged around in the theatre seats sipping on their beers. I had come with a couple kids from the dorm- a Grateful Dead/Pink Floyd/Beatles fanatic from New Hampshire and a Christian kid from Idaho…they were instantly dubious as soon as the first act played their first note, they absolutely hated it by the second note. This was The Scissor Girls. (3 meg mp4 video)
As the other ladies grinded away on stage, the elfish singer/bass player was frantically running to join them, donned in a red vintage dress and a ghoulish mask.. When she plugged in and pounded out heavy wooden spidery bass lines and started singing in a harsh declamation- I realized I had found my new favorite band.
I had recently found a love for jagged dissonant music through The Fall, Captain Beefheart and God Is My Co-Pilot. Scissor Girls took all of this and transformed it into something I had never heard or seen before but which I had always been pining for. They overamplified all these artists- from the cryptic misanthropic ramblings of Mark E. Smith to the musical cubism of Trout Mask era Magic Band to the ambiguous gender politics of God Is My- Co Pilot. This was all wrapped in a highly unique aesthetic and attitude based on mystery and obscurity…a secret society donned in matching uniforms performing a ritualistic catharsis, flinging themselves to the dance of death.
Scissor Girls was founded by bassist/vocalist Azita Youssefi in 1991. She was a recent DC transplant attending The School Of The Art Institute Of Chicago when she befriended guitarist Sue Anne Zollinger, another DC native. When Azita’s old friend Heather Melowic moved to Chicago to play drums, they formed the Scissor Girls. They quickly gained a following by their stage presence alone- they were known for dressing up in odd attire such as safety goggles and tutus, their faces smeared in heavy raccoon-like make-up. Their early shows were heavy, angular and ferocious- a group that had many tricks up their sleeves and many more ideas to explore.
The first thing that separates Scissor Girls from the riot-grrrl groups of the early 90s is that the Scissor Girls were foremost interested in sound as their weapon- rather than some ineffectual sloganeering and whiny temper tantrums. Scissor Girls transcended gender rather than being bound by it. They did not deal in black and white but thrived in the grey areas in between everything- sound, gender, sex, violence and concept. The “scissors” cut and everything is recombined to form something new…nothing has a fixed meaning. Their sound reflected this in their strange, inventive and often brutal textures and oddly shifting compositions; their visual aesthetic reflected this by mixing signs of desire, disgust, obedience and dominance. But through it all there was a mocking laughter- that no matter how serious people might take themselves…it was all pointless in the end- a Dada-like philosophy that lends itself to constant innovation.
It is important to mention the visual aesthetic of Scissor Girls for it defined the band in terms of a whole experience. Some record covers were cryptic scientific scrawlings- as if they were blueprints for an unknown plan…most likely of ill intent. The LP pressing of the first record came with a giant smudgy map of a reconstructed version of Chicago, overlaid with typewriter text and musical notation with odd drawings and notes scribbled in the margins. Often, Azita’s scratchy drawings of grotesque animals adorned various releases. This all lent a sense of mystery to band- as if they were exiled researchers and scientists living in the filthy alleys of the city, plotting and conspiring for some grand scheme. But of course, this could all be meaningless gibberish- maybe the cut and pasting of forms (essentially the definition of grotesque) were just used to confound and force one to project their own meaning into it. Ambiguous and constantly shifting!
The Scissor Girls also developed an on-stage visual aesthetic. Early live performances saw them simply dressing up in wacky clothes, but this eventually led to a more stylized look utilizing vintage uniforms. This gave them a look of power onstage, like members of a secret society performing a ritual. Towards the end of the Scissor Girls’ life, they began wearing matching blue and white uniforms with “SG Research” embroidered on the breast. Not merely a fashion gimmick, these uniforms confused notions of female subservience and the tokenizing of women musicians. Here you had three powerful women not fitting the usual clichés of cute and subservient or of crazy, uncontrollable and irrational. They produced a powerful noise, but they were always in control…these uniforms further amplified the point. The effect of the uniforms relates back to the cover artwork in that it is grotesque, corrupting our expectations and creating new forms and meanings (that eventually shift again).
The earliest Scissor Girls work jumped off from the bass-led post-punk of PIL and The Fall. Their first single “Phy Diablo!” (Monkeytech) is simple and stripped down but extremely heavy. The drums pound out danceable repetition, the bass slithers around, the guitar splatters odd melodies fractured with scrappy noise and Azita spits venom. It would be a method of composing sounds that would be expanded upon with their first LP "To: The Imaginary Layer On Skeletons" (Quinnah) and their second LP “We People Space With Phantoms” (Atavistic) which features more interplay between instruments, denser textures, longer songs burbling with a seething rage delivered in an almost scientific controlled manner.
Scissor Girls Live At Lounge Ax, Chicago 1993 (20 meg mp4 video)
Sue Anne departed after the recording of the “We People…” record and was replaced with Kelly Kuvo. Kuvo brought a craggy sense of texture to the group that was to push the group into further deconstructing their sound. Scissor Girls released a duo of 7” singles entitled “New Tactical Outline I & II” (SG Research) that fostered a sense of dread through lurching peculiarly juxtaposed rhythms, a dissonant uneven babble of texture and most importantly- space. These are the most haunting recordings of the SG oeuvre…a frightening desperation punctuated by meticulous well-laid plans for total body and mind destruction…sort of like PIL’s Metal Box/Second Edition concept of spiritual nihilism.
The singles were quickly followed up by the “So You Can See What S-T-A-T-I-C-L-A-N-D” 10” (Load). The opening track ejaculates in a frenzy only to break up and open the curtain for the Scissor Girls’ ultimate and final musical deconstruction. Melodies start and stop, beats lead down spiral staircases to nowhere, false starts erupt into spastic turmoil that is quickly dampened. I remember seeing Scissor Girls live at this point and thinking it was a band on the verge of a break-up. Nothing seemed rehearsed and it felt as if they were battling on stage. This record makes sense of those incoherent performances, although I still can’t decide if it is genius, a dying gasp or both.
Live Performance of Mr. Poison (track from Staticland 10") (10 meg mp4 video)
Scissor Girls broke up soon after the release of “So You Can See What S-T-A-T-I-C-L-A-N-D”. Shortly thereafter a compilation of singles and the 10” came out on Atavistic. They had recorded another album worth of tracks, which will unfortunately never see the light of day. Sue Anne went on to pursue a Ph.D in Biology/Neuroscience, Heather obtained a Ph.D in Biochemistry, and Kelly Kuvo moved to New York, collaborated with the Fisherspooner guys in a band called “Sweet Thunder” and now does various freelance writing. A couple years after the SG breakup, Azita presented her new group Bride Of No No, which compacted Beefheartian complexity into tight but sprawling compositions. She is currently performing solo as Azita- a project that is much softer and accessible but still showcasing her amazing acrobatic and demanding voice as well as a baffling sense of melody.
* videos from Scissor Girls DVD - limited edition of 30!
** yes, I know Scissor Girls detested the No-Wave branding.