“It’s the end of the night at a destroyed house party, and I’ve won the prize!” Jake Shears excitedly explains while showing NME the arresting cover art of his forthcoming album ‘Last Man Dancing’, where he’s pictured triumphantly holding a trophy aloft while surrounded by the shimmering shrapnel of a raucous rave.
The trailblazing Scissor Sister is speaking to us via Zoom from his – thankfully unwrecked – London home, where he’s lived for the past eight months after relocating from New Orleans to be closer to his new management, Fascination (“I brought my dog Toby over, which has really grounded me here. He’s 15 and he makes an appearance on the album sleeve”). Before finding his own place, Shears ended up staying with Sam Fender in long-term collaborator and friend Elton John’s Holland Park residence. “It was just the two of us in this house and it felt like a weird sitcom or something,” he chuckles of The Odd Couple set-up. “Sam’s such a sweet guy and insanely talented.”
The way Shears explains it, ‘Last Man Dancing’ is akin to the ultimate house party and the polar opposite to his reflective 2018 self-titled solo debut, which was written in the wake of his devastating break-up with his partner of 11 years, director Chris Moukarbel. “It’s funny because my last album was so personal and my heart was on my sleeve, and now this one has nothing sentimental on it. Nothing! It’s the first record I’ve made where there’s no ballads on it. There’s nothing chill whatsoever.”
Featuring production from Boys Noize and Vaughn Oliver (responsible for Latto’s ‘Big Energy’), it’s instead inspired by the lively and “joyful” parties Shears used to host at his New Orleans abode, which would start with sing-a-long pop hits and culminate with deeper house and tech cuts he’d spin himself between 4-6am. “I’ve got a dancefloor, and throw mostly impromptu dance parties that pull in all kinds of people,” he adds. “My David Bowie altar gets lit up, the incense starts burning and everybody goes all night.”
‘Last Man Dancing’ is divided into two distinct halves. It opens with the Giorgio Moroder-like “disco fantasia” of ‘Too Much Music’, which sounds like vintage Scissor Sisters retooled for 2023 and is accompanied by a cinematic video that nods to both Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. It’s one of six “straight-up pop songs” on the 12-track LP before it then veers into a distillation of Shears’ longstanding love of nightlife hedonism, approaching the subject in a way that he hasn’t since Scissor Sisters’ cult 2010 nocturnal playground album ‘Night Work’.
“The second half is one big piece that’s all connected: all the songs move into each other and it grows in intensity,” the 44-year-old beams. “It gets very clubby and psychedelic. I’ve always made stuff you can play at a party, but I’ve never made anything I could pull out at 1am if I was DJing in a club. One of my favourite things the Scissors ever made was the second half of ‘Night Work’, and I wanted to make a piece that was even stronger than that.”
It’s clear that Shears is proudest of this particular aspect of the record, which was partly written with Boys Noize in Lisbon and road-tested at DJ sets and his fabled house parties. “It really honed my Spidey-Sense as to what worked. Getting Alex [Ridha, AKA Boys Noize] and I together, we just sit around and listen to the most fucked-up music we can get our hands on. He’s always got insane stuff to play me – even I’m clutching my pearls listening to it because it’s so insanely dirty!” he mock-gasps. “It got me excited about making a proper club record.” Needless to say, Elton “loves it”, while Canadian dance don Tiga (whom Shears has recorded a number of tracks with over the years) told Shears “he was proud of me for going this far.”
Any good party needs a gilded guest list, and Shears has assembled a cast of VIP friends for this record, including Amber Martin and Le Chev. Kylie Minogue, who he’s regularly worked with ever since she scored a Number Two hit with the exquisite ‘I Believe In You’ in 2004, turns up on ‘Voices’, which Shears describes as a lush, sexy pop song with the DNA of Depeche Mode and George Michael. Minogue “plays a siren in it, poetically calling you in your sleep,” he explains. “She’s sort of like a sugar plum fairy in it.”
‘Doses’, meanwhile, features the Queen of Bounce Big Freedia, while ‘Radio Eyes’ sees multi-Oscar winner Jane Fonda follow in the footsteps of Sir Ian McKellen by appearing on a Shears-penned track (he paired Gandalf with ecstatic disco on 2010’s ‘Invisible Light’). Fonda was a childhood hero of Shears’, whose mother realised he was gay before he did owing to his devotion to her camp workout videos. “All I wanted to watch was a Betamax dupe of 9 to 5 and Jane Fonda’s Workout,” he laughs. “You gotta know your kid is gay when your five-year-old is watching exercise videos!” They later became friends and collaborated on a short Pedro Almodóvar-style film in 2013.
When he was making ‘Radio Eyes’, he realised he needed something similar in the song. “So I looked at a few raw takes of the film and contacted [Fonda]: ‘Hey, I’m going to put this in the song’,” Shears recalls. “She enthusiastically replied: ‘Have at it!’. It’s a stellar moment that builds like a vortex into a techno track; it’s an instrumental until Jane comes on and gives a speech. It’s super-epic.”
Fonda isn’t the only legend to give a monologue on the record, as a 1970s TV interview with Iggy Pop is also sampled on the album’s bombastic denouement, ‘Diamonds Don’t Burn’. “I was really hoping that [Pop] wouldn’t turn me down, and was glad when he liked it,” says Shears. “It sounds like an explosive James Bond song via U2’s ‘Zooropa’. It’s like the closing credits of the record.”
While Shears is currently forging forward with new music, notable anniversaries are looming in the rear-view mirror: for instance, next year marks 20 years since the UK release of Scissor Sisters’ eponymous debut album. Though the band have been on hiatus since the release of 2012’s ‘Magic Hour’, it’s perhaps easy to underestimate how transgressive the band were in the UK in the pre-Drag Race era in queering up the mainstream, like a five-headed Trojan Horse for gay rights. Arriving in the same month as Franz Ferdinand’s opening salvo, Scissor Sisters were at the vanguard of the art-rock revival, which injected colour, style, sex and gender-blurring back into the charts.
The New Yorkers’ 2004 record shifted the most copies that year – and still ranks as the 12th best-selling debut LP of all-time – and was made on their own terms. They smuggled lyrics about crystal meth’s deleterious effect on the gay community and backroom boys into choruses your gran could hum, and in Shears you had a born-pop star who straddled both the Tesco aisles and margins. He could top the NME Cool List one minute and deliver a wholesome BRITs performance of ‘Take Your Mama’ with Jim Henson-like Muppets the next, while still having time to pose naked for the then-cutting-edge Butt magazine. During Scissor Sisters’ reign it felt like the outsiders were shaping the mainstream, with Shears a Pied Piper with poppers.
“It was a magical and charmed time, and what an experience,” reflects Shears, nearly two decades on, with visible gratitude. “It wasn’t always easy by any means, but I cherish those times. It was so special. I look back at my younger self and I was really hard on myself in my 20s. I do think back to that kid and try to give him a pat on the back and a free pass.”
Even if new Scissor Sisters music isn’t on the horizon, the band do remain in touch: he talks to multi-instrumentalist Babydaddy regularly, guitarist Del Marquis visited him last summer and he caught up with co-vocalist Ana Matronic back in August. “Everybody’s good, but after doing this for 20 years, I don’t get as torn up or stressed out over what I do,” the singer shrugs. “This is what I love doing and will continue to do, and I’m grateful for those days that paved the way for me to still be doing it.”
They also arguably paved a Yellow Brick Road for other people to do it. You can trace a line from Scissor Sisters’ uncompromising front-and-centre queerness to Years & Years, Lil Nas X and Sam Smith – indeed, Smith’s recent piss-off-the-homophobes video for ‘I’m Not Here To Make Friends’ could easily be a continuation of the sex club-set video promo for the Scissors’ early single ‘Filthy/Gorgeous’, which was directed by Hedwig and the Angry Inch creator John Cameron Mitchell. Does Shears feel like he helped shift such tectonic plates?
“Yeah, I hope we paved the way for other people,” he replies. “I knew there were certain things that were really hard, and there were moments when I remember thinking, ‘Just push through with this’, and I knew it was going to make things easier for others. Just as we stood on the shoulders of those who came before us, I knew at times, ‘This is not going to be as tough for the next person coming along’.”
He feels, however, that social media would have made Scissor Sisters’ rise tougher. “I’m so thankful we came up in the time we did, because in certain ways it would be more difficult now. Everything’s bouncing around, and getting magnified and amplified. It’s harder in a lot of ways.”
But rather than rest on any laurels, with ‘Last Man Dancing’ the re-energised indie-disco icon is back to claim his trophy. “The heart of this record is for those who make it to the end of the night, which is when the most magical moments happen. That’s when the best music can start playing and it can get weirder and darker.” Shears then adds with a wolfish grin: “I’m always the last one standing – and this album is dedicated to those who remain.”
Jake Shears’ ‘Last Man Dancing’ will be released on June 2 via Mute