Jason Sellards went to high school on Capitol Hill, worked at Bimbo's, and hung out at Bauhaus. Then he left Seattle to seek his fame and fortune in New York City. And it looks like he might have found both.
It was a frigid Saturday night in early January, the start of the bitter cold spell that wreaked havoc on the Northeast, but the Bowery Ballroom, a 500-plus venue in New York's Lower East Side, was packed. New York luminaries like Justin Bond (of Kiki & Herb fame), and Matty Safer (the bassist for the Rapture), as well as singers Boy George and Rufus Wainwright were there, along with what seemed like every last gay man in New York. Everyone had braved the weather to get a glimpse of Scissor Sisters and their flamboyant and preternaturally cute singer, Jake Shears.
Shears (real name: Jason Sellards), it soon became clear, is a natural star. He prowled the stage wearing a fedora, a jacket with no shirt underneath, and leather pants. With his bright blue eyes and dirty blond hair, the former Seattle resident is Heartthrob incarnate. And while the band has performed for huge audiences all over Europe, in New York they've been relegated to smaller venues--at one point Shears "performed" on the bar at the Cock, a slutty East Village gay hole in the wall. So his band's show at the Bowery was less a homecoming and more a declaration of a bright future, as Sellards and his band played to a room packed with people who knew every word to every song on their self-titled debut CD--a CD that is only available as an import in the States.
Of course, it wasn't always this way. Like many who leave Seattle for the East Coast, Sellards' beginnings were less than auspicious. He moved to New York City five years ago to finish school at New School University's Eugene Lang College, where he studied fiction writing. His first apartment was in a Brooklyn ghetto. "We were in a full-on crack house," Sellards tells me over brunch one morning in the East Village. "It was serious culture shock when I first got here."
His next apartment was no better--a 250-square-foot, bare-bones loft in Williamsburg with water running down the walls and no heat. At another point Sellards shared a basement apartment with "two depressed gay men in their 30s," he recalls. "It was awful, so miserable." (The focus on apartments may seem odd to all the Seattleites reading this, I realize, but in New York City your living space strongly correlates with your sanity and your status.) Sellards jumped from job to job, go-go dancing at tiny gay bars like IC Guys on East Sixth Street, writing music reviews for Paper magazine, and working at Leshko's, a restaurant on Avenue A.
I was happy to see Sellards when I ran into him shortly after he moved to New York, as we'd known each other back in our Seattle days. He had a band now, he told me excitedly, and it was good. As a writer for the Village Voice with a weekly music column, I've become pretty skeptical when anyone tries to sell me on a band. But I'd known Sellards since he was a sweet 16-year-old hanging out at Bauhaus on Pine Street (where I once worked) getting wired on Jolt and espresso. Sellards also has that brand of wide-eyed enthusiasm that's contagious, which made it very hard for me to be entirely skeptical.
The son of a sweet Southern lady and a conservative 75-year-old father, Sellards exudes the sort of qualities that come from people who've had good childhoods and who've been blessed with supportive parents. He's not neurotic. He's easygoing, optimistic, and wears his emotions on his sleeve. There's nothing calculated about him. He's very Pacific Northwest: Seattle-style honest, polite, and well-behaved--nothing like the jaded and callous New Yorkers who surround him. Though he's been out since he was in high school, Sellards doesn't have what my friends and I have dubbed the gay accent--"the fagcent"--nor does he confuse bitchiness with wit. After Sellards finished the Bowery show, he jumped down to the floor to see his pals. "What'd you think?" he shyly asked, behaving no differently than he would have had he played for 10 people or 10,000.
Indeed he's not much different than when I first met him as a hyper teenager nearly 10 years ago at Bauhaus. He attended the Northwest School, right around the corner from the cafe, and he'd come in almost every day. His energy even then was infectious. I had no idea then that Jason longed to be a singer, or that he had a gift for performing. Nor did I know then that he often roamed the streets of Seattle singing whatever lyrics popped into his head. I also didn't know that he had moved to Arizona for a year, and that he had come out of the closet in a particularly repressive community. Sellards told me he would have dropped out of school if it weren't for his last two years in Seattle--and the Northwest School. "[The school] saved my ass," he says. "It was a really hard school, [but] I could be gay. And out. And people still appreciated me. It was such an amazing thing. I was so fortunate to have been able to have gone there. I was ready to fucking quit school."
After graduating from high school, Jason lived the standard-issue life of a twentysomething on Capitol Hill. He made burritos at Bimbo's Bitchin' Burrito Kitchen ("that was miserable and you can quote me on that"), sold CDs at Sub Pop Megamart and movie tickets at Harvard Exit. On his days off he'd spend all his money on music at Orpheum (now defunct), or he'd take the bus to one of the other Seven Gables theaters and see a movie for 35 cents. He'd wander the Broadway Market, or he'd stroll down Broadway and stop into Retro Viva, where he met Andy Salzer, who also lives in New York now. Andy, in his Seattle incarnation, wore polyester and had green hair and a goatee and blasted Thrill Kill Kult, and Andy and Jason bonded over their love for that band. Salzer, who is now a celebrated up-and-coming fashion designer in New York behind the menswear label Yoko Devereaux, recalls, "He was just a really cute, excited young kid. He has that excitement, and that's part of his charm and his success."
Sellards started a band in Seattle, called My Favorite Band, playing glamorous venues like the long-gone Puss Puss Cafe on Pine. "I played guitar and sang songs. I could only do five chords on the guitar, so all the songs were five chords in different orders," he laughs. But he eventually realized he would have to leave Seattle. After a short detour to L.A., a city he quickly came to hate, Jason figured that L.A.'s polar opposite, New York City, must be the right place for him.
When I ran into Sellards and he told me about his band, promoter and deejay Larry Tee and his electroclash "movement" were big. Everyone had a band, including former Seattleites Hungry Wives, who were led by Andy Salzer and Joe Corcoran. As an electronic-music critic, fan, and deejay, I was dismissive of these Brooklyn-based bands--they were novelty acts, at best; one-hit club wonders at worst. Many of the performers lip-synched, the scene was driven more by image than by music, and it simply screamed fad. Larry Tee was a marketing genius, and while most of the music coming out of Brooklyn was light, fun, and fashionable, it would be gone in a year.
Scissor Sisters' single "Electrobix" seemed to place them on a faux electro path, and firmly in the electroclash movement, as did a few of the publicity shots I saw of Shears and his two bandmates, Ana Matronic and Babydaddy, wearing S&M gear. Well, I thought, at least he's having fun. But the flip of "Electrobix" was a cover--or in Jason's words, "a reinterpretation"--of Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb." Had I been able to set aside snobbery and actually listen to the song, maybe I would have recognized it as the innovative, even brave, undertaking that it was. It's the single that best defines Scissor Sisters, a cross-pollination of disco, electro, '70s rock--even Broadway show tunes. Their "Comfortably Numb" is nearly unrecognizable; it's sped up, and the morose lyrics are kicked into high gear by Sellards and Matronic's Bee Gees-esque falsettos. A hit in the clubs last summer, "Comfortably Numb" led to their signing in the UK on Polydor Records in 2003.
It was also the first hint that Scissor Sisters didn't really mesh with the whole trendy Williamsburg electro scene. Their arrangement on "Comfortably Numb" was too complex, for starters, and it was not tongue-in-cheek, for another. And while I had lumped Sellards' band in with the electroclash scene, he and his bandmates were aware that electroclash was a time bomb. "I never really liked the term electroclash," says Jason. "I thought it was really heinous, cheesy. Larry trademarked it and named it. That's like the death knell for anything. It got shoeboxed way too early. The Face [a British magazine] wanted us to be in an electroclash piece a year and a half ago and we were just like, 'We're not going to do it.' We knew it was going to shoebox us, and now we're getting a big feature in the Face on our own."
Sellards says now that he never really felt like his band fit in with the electroclash scene. "We felt like the oddballs," Sellards recalls. "Our music didn't sound like what other people were doing," which he chalks up to his music's sincerity. "I would hate to think people think we are ironic," he says.
While his music isn't ironic, Sellards, like a lot of artists, tends to speak in clichés. Talking about his band, he says things that you read in nearly every interview--observations about songwriting, and stardom, and the band's unique sound. But with Jason, I have to believe he's sincere, that he hasn't just watched Spinal Tap one too many times. He says, "I don't know if it sounds cocky or pretentious [but] in a way I think this album is sort of ahead of its time in its approach. I feel like this album could be more acceptable in the future," and, "I feel like really good songwriting is complete divine intervention," and, "I feel like I'm doing exactly what I was meant to do, exactly what I was put on this earth to do."
He tells me with unrestrained glee that he has to leave in an hour to finish a remix that the Pet Shop Boys asked him to do of one of their songs. He and the other main songwriter, Babydaddy (Scott Hoffman), have already nailed a remix of Blondie's "Good Boys." Duran Duran are so impressed with the Sisters they've asked the band to open for them.
"I wish I could freeze time right now," he says. "It's amazing having the Pet Shop Boys calling you up wanting you to do their mix."
After the Bowery show, Sellards and his mates will head to Europe for a six-week tour. In London, Scissor Sisters will be greeted by billboards plastered with their faces promoting the release of "Comfortably Numb" in the UK. Their label--and Sellards--is hoping that London will break them to a bigger audience in the U.S., similar to what happened with the Strokes. It is a strategy that doesn't always work--other New York bands, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Fischerspooner, did well overseas but flopped at home.
England's hype machine can also be a double-edged sword. The English press is famous for building bands up and then breaking them down, sometimes before an album has even been released. The British press can also brutally pigeonhole artists, categorizing their sound, and then filing them neatly into the disposal bin.
"There's nothing that's worse than playing to an audience that has already decided they want you to prove something to them," says Sellards. "I keep trying to say in interviews with the major press over there, 'Don't tout us as the best thing since sliced bread, because we are just a band.' I don't want to live up to anybody's expectations. I don't want people to have expectations."
But he needn't have worried. The day after "Comfortably Numb" was released in England, it broke the Top 10 charts, and the band was asked to perform on Top of the Pops. Jason wrote me a deliriously giddy e-mail giving a front-and-center view of what it's like to have fame knocking on your doorstep. "You would not believe what's been happening over here. It's so crazy. The press has been crazy, tons of hype, everybody is writing about us. The gossip columns and tabloids have even gotten in on it. Writing about how crazy we are and quoted Ana saying that 'Britney's about as smart as a box of hair.' It's pretty insane. But we're all very excited and happy. We even heard from Pink Floyd's publishers this morning. Roger and Dave have given their stamp of approval, strangely enough, and Roger requested the album and a picture disc. The label has us up in this really posh flat, it's so bizarre. I'll keep you updated on goings-ons, but it's all looking really good. Love, Jason."
But, in their own country, things might not be so rosy: There's that whole gay thing, for starters. Take a band named after a lesbian sex act, with three gay members, and hidden queer themes in nearly all of their songs, and try to sell them to homophobic Middle America... and you have a surefire all-American flop. Nearly 20 years after Boy George became a household name, America's tolerance for queerness in music has gone backwards not forwards. But Sellards insists Scissor Sisters is not just a gay band.
"I'm not interested in singing about gay relationships," Sellards says. "I mean, there's definitely undertones with the lyrics that have gay elements. 'Take Your Mama Out'--if you read between the lines of that song, it's about being gay. [But] it's not obvious and I don't want to be obvious.... I feel like songs singing explicitly about gay relationships automatically shut out a huge part of the world."
Still, it's clear at the Bowery show that Scissor Sisters--which now includes a drummer and a guitarist--appeals primarily to gay men at the moment. And they're not a bad crowd to have on your side, singing along, dancing, responding with love and affection. During the show, I stand with Salzer, Sellards' old friend, near the front with a few other refugees from Seattle. We're all clutching big, oversized bras to throw up onstage during Scissor Sisters' high-energy house number, "Filthy & Gorgeous." I get tired of waiting and throw my brassiere up during "Comfortably Numb" thinking it might be the encore. I was wrong, the real encore turns out to be "Filthy & Gorgeous" after all. Suddenly, the crowd erupts--really, truly freaks out. My jaw drops when I see Fred Schneider of the B-52's onstage interjecting "fil-thay!" and "gorg-JUS!" in his trademark deadpan/exclamatory style.
I can hardly believe it, and I can see that I am not the only one. A shit-eating grin on his face, Sellards stands next to Schneider, staring at him in utter disbelief. I hope Sellards remembered to press the pause button--I hope he's froze time up there--because he's going to want to savor this sublime moment for the rest of his life.