Derek Gruen, aka Del Marquis, is happy to let his fellow Scissor Sisters eclipse his nerd-cool presence on stage. Now, though, as the band takes some time off, all swoony eyes – and ears – are on Marquis and his latest solo project, “Cosmos,” released under the moniker Slow Knights (take that, Jake Shears).
Marquis recently chatted about teaming with Prince’s legendary backing band for the new release, the “unique relationship” he has with the Scissor Sisters and his mission to be Beyonce … with a guitar.
What do I call you: Derek or Del?
You can just stick with Del. I know I’m confusing everybody.
What do you like most about doing these side projects without the Scissor Sisters?
I’m not really one of the main songwriters in Sisters. I come in and put down guitar parts over structures and ideas that are existing, so this really gives me more validation – considering I went from a world working as a designer into music, where I wasn’t sure I was creating enough. I had to kind of do these projects to feel like I had my own little ego baby; basically, in a really trite way, I wanted to build something from the ground up, so on this second project I definitely felt more confident and got to the point where the record I finished was what I had in my head the whole time. I didn’t really feel like I did that the first time.
With the series you released in 2008 and 2009?
Yeah, I had never written lyrics and I’d never sang to my own music, so it was really part experimentation and blind fury. I look back and think, “God, I would’ve worked a little harder on that. I would’ve finessed those lyrics. I would’ve cut that song down by a minute.”
How would you describe this album to a Scissor Sisters fan?
I set out to make an R&B record that went to outer space. It’s a groove record, but it’s a decidedly different sense of taste. Obviously, doing a record like this, I have a bit more control and it’s through my own filter as opposed to a band’s.
Do you like having that control, or would you prefer having three band members who can make decisions for you?
There are bonuses to both. I can’t say I did everything myself on this record, but if I worked on a song with someone else, I just said to approach it in a way that maybe isn’t typical of their own work, because I have a certain sound I’m looking for. So can you write from a different point of view than you normally would? Just keeping it so that with all these different contributors and different singers, it still sounds like a cohesive record and not some weird anomaly.
So, in a sense, you get to be the frontman and call the shots.
Yeah, I mean, I’m the art director. (Laughs) I’m the creative director of the project. Being a creative director is very different from being a front person, and I’m actually the opposite. I chose four or five other people to be the front person to sing each song, which is the true focus for the listener, or most listeners, so I actually remove myself from the center of attention.
I was happy to kind of be a Dave Stewart and just wear sunglasses and hide a little bit, because I actually don’t feel very comfortable in front of a mic. I’m not a true singer, and giving the song to other people to sing allows me to enjoy them. I can distance myself enough from them by hearing someone else’s voice so I enjoy the record I’ve made.
You’re a lot like Jake, because he obviously doesn’t feel comfortable in front of a mic at all.
(Laughs) I’m actually that gullible. I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I don’t think I’ve ever known anybody more attuned to be there (than Jake) – and you know what, seeing that is clarity enough to know when it doesn’t feel right. Because it should feel natural. Everyone has a role they are destined to fill whether they know it or not, and I have just enough attention on me as a guitar player. Anything more and I’m not sure I’d thrive like that.
I can understand wanting to blend in.
You get moments of glory and that feels great, but then if you’re in a bad mood you can get kind of skulk in the darkness and no one is that bothered.
Is that Madonna’s “Holiday” on “Under Attack” that I’m hearing?
It’s just a coincidence. (Laughs) You know. It evokes a sense of childhood, maybe.
Happy accident, then?
That was a happy accident. Sometimes those songs are just in our DNA, and I don’t know. If people want to make a comparison, I’m fine with that.
How did you come to work with Prince’s former backing band, New Power Generation?
I had basically made a bedroom record like many people do, but I just felt like there was something missing. I’m not a great bass player, so I really felt like in order for these songs to sound authentic to my ears, I needed people to play them that are true players. When I played the demos to my engineer, he said, “I know the guys who used to play in New Power Generation and I’m sure I can set this up,” and we did. I flew out to Minneapolis and had a one-week session and it was by far my favorite part of the process. I just had to communicate very little. I just let them do what they do and it was so much fun. When people are that connected to an instrument, music is their language.
Are you a big Prince fan?
Yeah, I don’t really know anybody who isn’t appreciative in some aspect. Beyond liking the songs, I definitely like to study people who perform, because I didn’t feel like I was a natural performer. So I always kind of looked at different people’s movements, whether it was Nancy Wilson or Prince or Beyonce. Prince, who was able to move while playing a guitar in these outfits – people couldn’t believe that he was playing a solo while riding on his back or doing a split. I was like, “How do I get to that point? How do I become Beyonce with a guitar?” (Laughs) I definitely love studying live tapes of him and have taken inspiration from him, especially with the new romantic stuff and some of his outfit choices. It’s nice to study and, through my own lens, I’ve appropriated some things.
Study or stalk?
I don’t want to stalk him. He’s a Jehovah’s Witness! I don’t want anything to do with him. (Laughs) And I’m an adult. I’m not interested in stalking people.
But don’t you have a history of stalking famous musicians?
Yeah, I was a teenager music fan like anyone I know who’s in a band or works in publishing or in whatever position they’ve attained in music. The best people were once crazy fans. They were silly teenagers who made collages and stole set lists and waited outside of hotels. I mean, all the best that you want to work with as adults were insane teenagers, but you know, most people grow out of that and they say, “How do I find a way to get closer to music that’s not so disturbing for someone past the age of 20?”
How long do you expect the Scissor Sisters hiatus to last?
I have no idea. And I think that’s how it should be. If and when it feels right we would do it in a second, so whatever that means.
Do you think breaks are important to a band’s longevity?
There’s no other reason to take one. As a live band, we’ve never been very lazy. We always put a lot of effort into performing and that is really exhausting, and touring is becoming more and more difficult, so as a band – and we’re talking not two DJs with, like, one tour manager and a laptop – you’re traveling with a huge group and you’re freighting all this equipment, and it’s very expensive. It’s a lot of work to travel the globe. We just felt a little burned out. Like, “Let’s stop so we can enjoy it in the future rather than absolutely destroying ourselves to the point where we never want to see each other again.”
When’s the last time you saw them?
I don’t know. We text and email and tweet. I’ve seen everybody at least once since last fall. It’s just something where you can feel comfortable not seeing them for years and then you just walk into a room and we’d feel like no time had passed. It’s a unique relationship that’s difficult to explain unless you’ve been in a band. It’s this strange hybrid of family and friendship and ex-lover.
What are the challenges of releasing an album independently versus one you’ve done with Scissor Sisters?
How diversified social media is. Just to create a new name for this project, I had to start over with everything from the basics of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – and then I’m not very active as it is. I’m almost like a technophobe, so for me this administration of being up on my Twitter – using exclamation points and being informative and funny – it’s like I can really barely muster the energy. I’d much rather be working in the garden or riding my bike and whistling at the clouds. (Laughs) I really have a tough time doing this groundwork.
Knowing that I made a great record is enough for me, and then it’s like, “Oh wait, I have to tell people about it.” I don’t want to do any of that. It’s awful. (Laughs) I have people helping me set up some bells and whistles. Gosh, I sound like a fucking Golden Girl.
You need to call Taylor Swift. She’s mastered social media.
(Sarcastically) Oh my gosh, I just need to be dating teenage boys and then breaking up with them. I’m sure that would really help.
There you go. New marketing plan.
Yeah, that’s it.
How good are you with the hashtags?
I keep forgetting. It’s like, “Do I need to hashtag?” I tweet when appropriate, and occasionally –
Yes, occasionally inappropriately, if I’ve had something to drink.
That’s the way you sell yourself.
I know. But why does everything have to be funny? I mean, Twitter really only works if you’ve got wit. And I do consider myself occasionally witty, but I didn’t know that to be a pop star you also have to be a comedian.