Chicks, Not From Dixie

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First there's the attitude. The members of Chicks on Speed brazenly admit they're not skilled musicians ("There are too many musicians already in music") and that producers help them compose their songs. Then there's the unabashed entrepreneurship. The rock/techno trio, based in Berlin, wears bizarre homemade clothes, which are sold on its website for DKNY prices (cut-up shirt with detachable arms: 100 Euro; that's about $95 to those of you outside the E.U.). But these Chicks have created a sensation among hip young Europeans, and they're setting out to win the hearts of American rock fans. If the group's first U.S. tour this spring doesn't attract attention, the loss will be all America's--Chicks on Speed is a smart, eminently danceable band.

The group formed in 1997 when Australian Alex Murray-Leslie and American Melissa Logan, both 30, were students at the Munich Academy of Art, and German Kiki Moorse, 33, was a fixture of the surrounding art scene. They started Chicks on Speed as a multimedia art piece that exploited the notion of marketing an imaginary band. "Merchandising, but the band doesn't exist--that was the whole idea," says Moorse.

But soon the band did exist. After the women put on a performance in which they pretended to be deejays, techno producers encouraged them to start making music. The Chicks decided they could be a real band without actually knowing how to play, and they were soon releasing singles and, eventually, full-length albums. "We have an idea for a text and a general idea about the music," says Moorse, explaining their method, "and then the producers finish it." Steeped in the influence of both avant-garde '70s new-wave bands and slick '90s techno, they have created an irresistible sound, in which synthesizers, samples and drum machines collide with catchy rock hooks and English lyrics that are half sung and half spoken.

A critical mass of Americans is already beginning to succumb. Such lyrics as "Got more faces than Cindy Sherman/ Some people think I'm vermin/ Because my parents, they're both German" are bound to tickle the goatees of college-radio deejays everywhere. The U.S. music press has started taking complimentary notice of the Chicks, and the two albums they released last year, Chicks on Speed Will Save Us All! (on their label Chicks on Speed Records) and The Re-Releases of the Un-Releases (on the American label K Records), have received good to glowing reviews on both sides of the Atlantic.

But many U.S. record buyers may still resist the Chicks. Americans over the past 35 years have remained attached to the idea of rock as an earnest, romantic mode of expression, never fully embracing the proudly incompetent Sex Pistols or the proudly impersonal technowizards like the Orb and Aphex Twin, all beloved by Europeans. What could most rankle American rock audiences is the Chicks' rejection of the notions that 1) good rock music is either soulful, finely wrought craftsmanship (Radiohead) or cathartic guitar bombast (Nirvana) and 2) letting producers help compose your songs is only for teenyboppers like Britney Spears. "Bands don't give the producers credit for actually taking part creatively," says Logan. "With technology it's possible to do a lot of different things and do them really fast. You don't have to practice your guitar or practice the drums." Instead, the group maintains its online fashion boutique, creates installation pieces for galleries around the world and makes plans for a building it hopes to erect in Berlin. As Logan puts it, "We want to do everything."

They don't take themselves too seriously though. As a kind of self-mocking joke, they routinely perform a cover of Euro Trash Girl by the American rock band Cracker, a song satirizing expatriate life in Europe. "We're very excited about coming to America," says Murray-Leslie, sincerely. The feeling should be mutual.