By Roy Kasten
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Here's the second-best thing about Scott Hoffman, the bass player and co-songwriter at the center of New York's Scissor Sisters: He's part of a band that makes delicious dance-pop that's as vibrant musically as it is culturally. The five-piece group's self-titled debut is a confident romp through a glittery Times Square of the open mind, with stops at Elton John's honky château, the Bee Gees' night-fever nightspot and Air's 10,000-hertz hangout. Song topics include taking your mother out all night, love in the backseat, municipal lockdowns on sex and leaving your heart in San Francisco at some motherfucking disco.
Here's the best thing about Scott Hoffman: When you pick up the phone to receive his call, he doesn't say he's Scott Hoffman. He says, "Hey, it's Babydaddy." Babydaddy is the bearded-and-boa'd character Hoffman plays as a Scissor Sister. His four bandmates have alter egos, too: Jason Sellards is beleathered frontman Jake Shears, Ana Lynch is flame-haired co-vocalist Ana Matronic, Derek Gruen is Angus Young-suited guitarist Del Marquis and Patrick Seacor is scarf-swathed drummer Paddy Boom. Together the quintet creates a pop band much more fun to watch than five guys in thrift-store T-shirts idly strumming electric guitars.
Babydaddy says that was the idea from the start. He and Shears met through a mutual friend from Kentucky, where Babydaddy grew up. When the bassist moved to New York to study writing at Columbia, he hooked up with Shears, who was "kind of doing these crazy performances and parties and stuff around town. And go-go dancing." After college Babydaddy started studying music production and getting into dance music for the first time after a childhood spent as "a rock & roll kid." He came up with some basic dance tracks and invited Shears to contribute vocals.
"I had heard him sing before and knew he had a good sense of humor and was wildly creative," Babydaddy says of his pal. "I don't know that I ever knew he was a great singer, but it worked out, and we started writing songs together, which sort of opened me up to discovering that dance music and rock & roll could really be combined in such an interesting way. I discovered Blur, one of those acts that took dance production and turned it into pop music. And I think it was that pop element that really turned me on to dance music in general and discovering artists that sort of blurred the line -- from Aphex Twin to, you know, Ace of Base." He laughs. "That's one of Jake's sick little pleasures."
Shears and Babydaddy recorded a couple of singles and started doing shows around New York. Since the city was in the grips of an electroclash fever, making overnight art-world stars out of any two idiots with a broomstick and a steady supply of eye shadow, the pair found people open to bands performing in unconventional ways.
"We had dreams of rock & roll and being a proper band, but the tools that we had to make music sort of overshadowed that in the beginning," Babydaddy says. "It was like, 'OK, we don't need to haul around a drum kit and do all these things right now, because we can use a computer and get by with whatever we have.' It was a time when you could go up onstage as anything. A lot of the acts that we performed with don't do the full-band thing -- they'll bring along samplers and sequencers and do all that stuff. For us it was just always on the horizon, this idea to slowly build, to do this right."
Through mutual friends the two men met Ana Matronic, who was throwing an evening of entertainment called Knock Off on the Lower East Side -- "a sort of cabaret performance-art evening," Babydaddy explains. "She and her friends would get up onstage and do these little performances. Sometimes they were very artful, and sometimes they were really silly, with a lot of drag queens and really interesting stuff." Ana invited Shears and Babydaddy to perform, "so we finished up this song we had called 'Bicycle of the Devil' and performed it to a backing CD. I pretended to play the laptop, and Jake stripped."
Soon after, the pair asked Ana to join the group. A year later they snagged Del Marquis, and after another six months, they took out a classified ad and found Paddy Boom. "It completely grew backwards from what a lot of bands do," Babydaddy admits. "There was music and inspiration before there was a band that sat in rehearsals and played together."
Once assembled, Scissor Sisters headed to Europe, where they needn't worry about FCC chair Michael Powell bloviating about, as one Sisters tune puts it, "Tits on the Radio." The band's cooled-out disco version of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" caught on and became a sizable post-Queer Eye hit.
"It was a side of music that people were missing, and it was something that the U.K. simply gets," Babydaddy says. "It's pop songwriting that has a certain edge to it. Pop music in America doesn't really say too much, but it's easy and it's consumable. In the U.K. I look at the charts and realize that people are challenging themselves."