Filter (November / December '02)
Undead, Not Dead
The premature burial of Siouxsie & The Banshees
by Jessica Hundley
A BEVERLY HILLS rooftop at midday may seem an unlikely place to stumble across three of Goth music's most potent figures, but even after I rub my eyes, Siouxsie and the Banshees are still there. They're dapper and refreshed and sipping iced coffees under the merciful shade of a patio umbrella. La Cienega Boulevard roars eight stories below. The sun glows white. A lean woman in a tiny bikini sits up in her lawn chair and takes a slow sip from a green margarita, as if the presence of a trio of alabaster-skinned Brits—one of them midnight haired, leather-clad and built like a willow tree—was the most normal thing in the world.
Siouxsie and the Banshees are here on a California roof because they are touring together for the first time in seven years and recording a live album which will serve as a thorough compilation of over two decades of hit songs. They have sold out every show, including the past evening's Palladium appearance, where they tore through their back catalogue with a fire and swagger that rendered null the 26-year sprawl since the band first faced a crowd.
That initial appearance in London, in 1976, featured the fledgling group ripping through a 20-minute version of the "The Lord's Prayer," all happy sacrilege and punk-rock spit in the face, with Siouxsie glaring and seductive and a fresh-faced pre-Pistols Sid Vicious banging the drums. It was an unforgettable debut.
Over the course of their career, Siouxsie and the Banshees would play an integral role in paving the dark road to the Gothic sound, but the band itself has always defied easy definition. Gaining initial inspiration from the fringes of Factory-era Velvet Underground, Siouxsie and the Banshees wove a richer, lusher tapestry—a haunting, spooky, beautiful noise that, 16 albums and many years later, still sounds like nothing else. This unique presence can be partially credited to both Steve Severin's brooding bass guitar licks and to Budgie's big, unstoppable booms. But the real reason behind the band's incomparability is undoubtedly the lady herself.
Transforming from the mild mannered Susan Dallion to the unstoppable Siouxsie Sioux, the band's lead singer is arguably one of the most imaginative and innovative figures in pop music history. A vocalist of rare, raw talent and an unparalleled showwoman to boot, Siouxsie possesses a sexuality all her own—a sensual persona completely void of self-exploitive posturing or ice queen cool. She is a gorgeous, towering composite of everything strong and female—from '20s vamp to Egyptian goddess, Indian princess to glamour gal, Harlequin doll to Geisha girl—borrowing freely from lost images and past moments and melding them together to form a kohl-eyed rock 'n' roll queen who moves like a panther and sings with a low and rumbling power that has yet to be duplicated by anyone, anywhere, anytime.
And here she is now, wearing a black halter, a studded belt and under a thin leather skirt, her legs are long and sinewy and lovely. She has translucent and pale cheeks, a cigarette-soaked voice and a wry smile that turns up at one end when she's amused. Budgie and Steve sit beside her, silk-shirted and elegant, despite the heat.
Siouxsie and the Banshees are about to start their first interview together in almost a decade, about to lay down the law, pass on the wisdom and teach all you kids a lesson in originality, authenticity, longevity and sowing the sweet seeds of dissent.
How does it feel being together again after all these years? Are you enjoying yourselves?
SIOUXSIE: Well, Budgie and I have actually been touring all this time.
BUDGIE: We went back to the toilet tour didn't we? [We're playing] the smallest venues we could find, just so we could get back in touch. We really thought people would forget us and we really had this notion that no one would come.
SIOUXSIE: It's been great to play some of these songs that we haven't played in 20 years. It's astonishing actually—this whole tour—we've been surprised. As is always with the Banshees, this was a bit unexpected. We got the phone call to do Coachella and that's how it all began. We were already talking about this amongst ourselves. We were mending fences and building bridges on times gone by and when we were asked to play, we didn't really think too hard ,we just said, "Fuck it. We might as well do it." And perhaps that will prove to Universal that our back catalogue should be remastered and put out again. And we'll record the shows as we go.
STEVE: It's the perfect scenario for Universal because we're doing all the work as usual. They don't have to promote us or spend any money. We're just on the road recording and it's an easy option for them.
SIOUXSIE: I'm just relieved that something is being done. We'd been begging someone to do something with our back catalogue. Polydor was swallowed up by Universal and suddenly we had no voice.
BUDGIE: There's a big difference between being on the margins and being marginalized. And we were being marginalized by not having our work promoted and we just wanted to get back on the page. With the label merger, we went from one labyrinth to another. We were on major labels before, but it wasn't quite the same. Back then, there were actually people who worked at labels who actually liked music, as opposed to just accountants. Now there is no loyalty to anything. I know I'm sounding very cynical, but that's the truth.
It seems to me there would be some awareness that they might have something worth selling in your back catalogue. I'm sure they have a million unreleased gems. Particularly with a monolith like Universal.
BUDGIE: Yes, but these people don't realize that they've the crown jewels in
SIOUXSIE: And our lives.
STEVE: And our souls.
It's too bad. There are a lot of problems with the industry at the moment. For one, the idea of nurturing a band is gone.
SIOUXSIE: They tend to kill things now—to smother them with the hype, the
machine and everything. I'm probably casting aspersions, but everything is so
processed. They're all in it for the wrong reasons. It's too much and 98
percent of these bands won't make a second album, or they'll spend five years
making it, and by then, everyone will have forgotten.They seem to get
overwhelmed by it all. But we learned a hell of a lot over the years. In a
time when people have
agents, managers, stylists and the whole entourage, we've really gone the
opposite way. We've got no one. We're all alone. People have a hard time
talking to us. They have a hard time talking without the middle man.You heard
them clamming up because they can't bullshit. They can't use the "speak" that
they all use. They're not saying anything, they're just making the right
noises. But if anything, it has proven that the only thing that matters is
the musicians and everybody
else on the periphery...fuck them. You can't depend on anyone or rely on them.
Doing everything yourself is a lot more work, but a lot more satisfying
when everything goes right, because you're finally understanding how it
works. And it feels really good when it works and if it doesn't work, you
blame yourself. But I'd rather blame myself than have it out of my control
and just be bitter about somebody else. We had an enviable situation at
Polydor. They just pretty much
left us alone. We did pretty much what we wanted at the beginning. We're
trying to get back to that.
STEVE: Siouxsie's right. We had an enviable situation for the first 10 years because it was people older than us—from the '60s—who still had a little bit of idealism about music.
BUDGIE: And still believed in the concept of album-making. If they had a single on their hands, that was a bonus.
SIOUXSIE: Rather than, "I can't hear a single on here"—that old chestnut. But it's okay. I always find that situations like the present, hopefully breed discontent and create new bands that will say, "Fuck 'em. We'll do it ourselves." The audience seems to resent being treated like cattle. Certainly, there are people who eat what's on their plates and don't mind it, but I do think there are people getting fed up with it all. It's all been so narrowed down and it's all about money. Whether it's the few albums or films or fashion shows, all the money is in the two percent. I love film as well, but it seems things like storyline and script—the basic elements for making a good movie—they're just getting dumber and dumber. I cringe. I get embarrassed for the actors. It's shocking. Absolutely shocking!
BUDGIE: With actors it's the same thing as some of these bands: they're developed and groomed, and in the end they're just another piece of merchandise.
But in the end, don't you think you have some power? The industry needs you. There is no industry without the artists.
SIOUXSIE: Yes, but you've always got a never-ending stream of lambs to the
slaughter. They need glamour as much as they need us, because there is such a
fast turnover. They need the flavor of the month.
STEVE: Well, I think something like electroclash is the perfect example of something that is hyped beyond belief. In six months, everyone knows who everyone is and then when the album comes out, no one buys it.
BUDGIE: Yet it gets three-page spreads in Time Out.
STEVE: It's like the Emperor's New Clothes or something. It's not even a reflection of the music. I mean, the music's alright, a bit retro, but...
BUDGIE: Yes, but we had that laugh with Sigue Sigue Sputnik didn't we? I mean, they're desperate to have something happening, a movement happening...
SIOUXSIE: But they pounce on it too soon.You need immediacy, but you also need time for bands to develop outside the eye of the media. Now it's just another uniform—more uniforms for the kids to wear without any meaning attached.
Everything is preconceived and bought and sold so fast.
SIOUXSIE: [Laughs] Yes, and life's crap and then you die.
Do you have plans to record together again?
BUDGIE: We haven't really had time to sit down and talk about it. It's just
been too crazy. I know on the Internet, people are saying, "It's been
years.They ought to be ready by now." I'm like, "Fuck! They're right!"
SIOUXSIE: I think we all want to get back to what we were doing—get back to work, so to speak. What's really positive about revisiting all this, is that the music stands up for itself. And there's no way we would stay on the stage...
STEVE: Without it feeling like it was relevant and we weren't just rehashing.
SIOUXSIE: We did the "Seven Year Itch" tour and it felt good and it was stimulating and we got more offers and people came to the shows. Then we went to Japan and we got this amazing Japanese support group called X-Girl. They were amazing. They're very visual and I think they're just a fantastic band in general. I think there are some amazing things happening in Japan right now. There's so much in Japanese film culture that I love. They are just so powerful with imagery and there is this real poetry to what they do. The thing I love most about Japanese culture is that they have a real nobility with failure. Whereas the West, you put your tail between your legs if you didn't make loads of money and you didn't save the world, but in Japan, there is a kind of sad irony. There's this idea of a noble failure, as long as you've tried something. I find it really beautiful. There's something really deep and spiritual about it.
STEVE: I think it's something English people can identify with. We like a beautiful loser—the Sid Viciouses of this world. There's a romance to it. And they assimilate everything in Japan.
SIOUXSIE: They mix it all up, yet they have their own slant on it. It's amazing how they get all those ingredients together and bake their own cake.
BUDGIE: It's a mind-fuck really.
SIOUXSIE: I find that really exciting.
BUDGIE: It's stimulating. It kind of pokes you in the eyes.
STEVE: It's more genuine. Many bands—particularly a lot of English bands—they look at just one particular area of the past and...
SIOUXSIE: Hone it.
STEVE: Yes. Look like it and sound like it and count on no one remembering the first time it was done.
SIOUXSIE: They might as well be a tribute band. The thing about the music today is that it's so unsexy. I mean, I'm in music because it turns me on. I love it. I feel sexy when I'm doing it and not sexy when I'm having to talk business and speak with these wankers, these insecure little Nazis. I fucking hate them. I want to kill them all.
Art and business never mix. Art is visceral.
SIOUXSIE: It is!
STEVE: And it should be.
SIOUXSIE: And there are so many people pissed off with being dictated to; being told that you have to go with the flow. It's horrible. We're out here just to do that [extending her middle finger] and to have fun doing it.
STEVE: I think that's why we haven't actually sat down and talked about making a new record, because that's the cerebral side of it. Whereas, like Siouxsie said, right now we're building bridges so that we can go out and be visceral and carnal and do what we do on stage—to come out sweated and feeling great. It takes bit longer to recover now, but it's still such a high.
SIOUXSIE: I come out a wet rag at the end. I'm crawling off the stage. But it will keep us young, at least in spirit. That physicality is very addictive as well. It's a real rush. Nothing can replace reaching those heights. That's probably why none of us ever got into drugs really. It's our best drug.
STEVE: Some of the most positive feedback has been that people say they haven't seen such an energetic show in a long time. We just have to get out there and show how it's done. You have to transcend and be in another place by three songs.
SIOUXSIE: Another liberation has been to go out as a four-piece and not rely on backing. Backing tapes or loops or samples or whatever—you're restricted by those. They can be a crutch sometimes. You have to reinvent certain things. You have to think about synthesizing things rather than throwing more at it.
BUDGIE: We know too much about the way people put on a show today. It's all Protools and a studio backstage and you're lucky if you hear live vocals. That's what people have gotten used to seeing. We're trying to do justice to the originals and get back to the spirit of it.
STEVE: All of these songs we played before they were recorded. That's how we started. We're a live band and we played for years before anything was recorded. So, we can do it.
BUDGIE: What I hate is the deception. Now it's all about throwing the pose, because there's nothing else really going on. Don't deceive! Don't even bother using microphone, just spend thousands on your teeth instead!
Well, you're setting a good example of how to do it the old fashioned way. And on how to keep your identity in the chaos.
BUDGIE: The old professors are at the lectern...
SIOUXSIE: And the seeds of dissent must be sown.
Contributed by Bonnie Bryant.