Entertainment Weekly (December 17, 2004)
New-wave goddess Siouxsie Sioux led the way for kick-ass frontwomen with bold style. And the Queen Banshee is still wailing.
Siouxsie Sioux, the former leader of Siouxsie and the Banshees, is enjoying a cup of Earl Grey tea on the rooftop pool deck of a quiet L.A. hotel. Apart from a dash of red lipstick, the British singer is sporting none of her signature stage armor--spiky black hair, Kabuki-white face, pools of Cleopatra eye shadow--and is dressed simply in black pants and a sheer red-and-white flowered top. At 47, she looks a good 10 years younger--a feat, considering a lifetime of smoking (she just quit) and "indulging" in her fair share during the '80s heyday of a 28-year career. In town to rehearse for a recent mini-tour, the infamous "Ice Queen" is outspoken (no surprise there), but also relaxed and funny, peppering our conversation with her throaty cackle. "I like 'Ice Queen' now," she says. "I'm pretty regal."
Of course she is.
A ferocious and fearless icon, Sioux kicked down doors for such gutsy, against-the-grain musicians as PJ Harvey, Garbage's Shirley Manson, the Distillers' Brody Dalle, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Karen O. "I learned to sing listening to her records--she made me connect with rock music," says Manson, who discovered the Banshees in 1980 at age 14. "Women in the charts up to that point had been presenting a glossy, sanitized version of femininity--wearing little rah-rah skirts with their bellies hanging out. But Siouxsie, her face painted with that tribal makeup, she came along looking like a warrior." Adds Banshees cofounder and bassist Steven Severin: "Her influence can't be undervalued. In some sort of negative universe, she's as influential as Madonna."
Like Madge, Sioux has made an indelible mark on fashion, spawning clones around the world and earning a place in haute couture history. Designer John Galliano honored the singer with his "Siouxsie Sphinx" collection in 1997, and in recent years, everyone from Gucci to Alexander McQueen has trotted out Goth-revival lines that are unmistakably Sioux-like. "She set the [women's] standard for cool-looking rock idols," says designer Anna Sui, who in 1997 painted her runway models with Siouxsie-esque makeup. "The boots, the fishnets, the hair, the eyeliner--she epitomized that whole style, and it's a look that's never gone away."
Born Susan Janet Ballion in London in 1957, Sioux grew up with a taste for the dramatic. Her earliest memory is of lying on her bedroom floor, pretending to be dead. Her older siblings turned her on to the Beatles; as a teenager, she discovered David Bowie, the Velvet Underground, and the Sex Pistols. By 1976, she had adopted her exotic pseudonym (Native Americans had always fascinated her) and, with pal Severin, become a regular at Pistols shows, often showing up in cupless bras, thigh-high vinyl boots, and little else. "I've always loved visuals--the thrill of not looking like anyone else," she explains.
Watching the Pistols perform convinced Sioux that she too could make some noise. On a whim, she and Severin signed up to play London's 100 Club during the city's first punk festival, on the same bill as the Clash and the Pistols. Never mind that neither of them had ever so much as held an instrument. "I wanted to be a singer--the opportunity came, and we took it," says Sioux.
And with that, the Banshees came roaring to life. Backed by a pre-Sex Pistols Sid Vicious on drums, Marco Pirroni (later of Adam and the Ants) on guitar, and Severin on bass, a 19-year-old Sioux winged her way through the first gig, screaming bits from the Bible, the Beatles' "Twist and Shout," and the German national anthem. "A lot of people think too much and talk themselves out of things like that, but I didn't give it a moment's thought," she says. "I just did it. I like relying on my instincts. If more people did, they might find they were pretty accomplished musicians."
In 1978, the Banshees (with drummer Kenny Morris and guitarist John McKay) released The Scream, an aptly titled first album that proved how far Sioux had come since her jokey debut. Raw and aggressive, the sound was pure punk at its core, guided by her nasal, untrained swoop of a voice. In place of rallying cries against the Queen and fascist regimes were surrealist, tongue-in-cheek tales, like a butcher in love with his bloody wares ("Carcass"). "We were the kind of Clockwork Orange kiddies then," Sioux laughs. As her voice evolved into a multi-octave force, the Banshees explored new territory, zigzagging through psychedelia (1983's Beatles cover "Dear Prudence") and electronic sampling (1988's "Peek-a-Boo"). "Cities in Dust" (1985) was the first of a handful of alt-rock radio hits in the U.S.
After the band's participation in 1991's inaugural Lollapalooza tour, which helped push sales of their 11th album, Superstition, to an all-time high of 358,000 copies, many expected the next project to be a full-on mainstream assault. And what better way to do so than by recording the theme song to a big Hollywood movie, Tim Burton's Batman Returns (1992). "I've always been a fan--Siouxsie is one of very few women who can create a realistic primal cat sound," quips the eccentric director, whose own striking style, not to mention that of characters like Edward Scissorhands, is arguably indebted to Sioux.
But the collaboration did little for the band commercially, and in 1995, they released The Rapture, a melodious, solidly reviewed album...that sold only 60,000 copies in the States. "Siouxsie was always reluctant to do anything just because it's supposed to be the next thing you do. She abhors all that," explains Budgie (a.k.a. Peter Clarke), Sioux's drummer husband, a Banshee since 1979 and half of their side project the Creatures since 1980. "And if someone doesn't play the game--especially female performers who don't conform to a certain type-- the industry would rather they go away."
Soon after Polydor (now Universal) dropped the Banshees in 1995, the band split. Since then, Severin has worked primarily as a producer (credits include the Tiger Lillies), while Sioux and Budgie have forged ahead with the Creatures. True to their do-it-yourself roots, they set up shop in their recording studio at home in rural southwestern France, released 1999's Anima Animus on their own label, Sioux Records, and took off on a self-financed world tour. In 2003, electronic duo Basement Jaxx invited Sioux to sing the title track on their highly lauded Kish Kash, and the Creatures also partnered with Instinct Records on Hai!, a stripped-down drum-and-voice explosion recorded with taiko master Leonard Eto, who joined them on tour.
"It's good to know that you can be self-sufficient," says Sioux, whose long-standing disdain for the "prepaid, premodeled, prepackaged" music industry is still every bit as fierce. "To finally get the chop from Polydor, it was like throwing down the gauntlet and saying 'F---ers!'" she snarls, shooting both middle fingers in the air. "You have to move on. And now we've come full circle." In more ways than one: In October, Sioux played the 100 Club for the first time since 1976.
Now settled back into her bucolic French paradise with cats Spooky, Spider, and Dandy, Sioux is hard at work. Last month, she celebrated the U.K. release of Downside Up (Universal), a four-disc collection of Banshees B sides that has been her obsession for almost two decades: The lesser-known, more experimental tracks rank among her favorite material. By the end of the year, she hopes to finish her next album, the first to be released simply as a Siouxsie record, neither Creatures nor Banshees--a way of "keeping my directions open," she says. "Siouxsie doesn't like havin' a day off," Budgie explains. "She doesn't have another life. This is her, this is what we do."
In other words, don't expect the Ice Queen to hang up her frosty staff any time soon. "Twenty-eight years already?" Sioux jokes. "I still don't think it's a chore. It's about having fun, you know?" She pauses, and grins. "I quite enjoy making noises in the bathroom."
Contributed by Jerry Burch.