B Side (Vol. Three, #1, Feb/Mar '89)
Siouxsie and the Banshees
by Sandra A. Garcia
Oh, how fickle are the unappreciative! A fellow critic, at the mention of Siouxsie and the Banshees, made it quite clear he felt the band had died five years ago, claiming that Sioux looked like Big Bird when he last saw her perform. Another opinionated type had the gentler estimate that the Banshees had ceased to function as a real entity three years ago.
Cease all of this nonsense! What's all of this unseemly talk of demise and death?
Carefully grasp the elegant wrist and feel the pulse. Check beneath the exotically darkened eyelid and marvel at the life within. Life that takes us on a decadent, luscious peek-a-boo of shadow and brilliance, preparing to seduce while dancing us skillfully to the edge of that ever-eternal pit, wrapping victims in silk and sensuality. A swift flick, a graceful kick and the unwary detractors may well find themselves needing a ladder to come back to the living. If they can find the way!
For this band is very much alive and pulsating. Over the past twelve tempestuous years the Banshees have enchanted an ever-growing audience, avoiding the pitfalls and self-destructiveness of the other chaotic bands that erupted from an era of do-it-yourself bands. "I think it's harder now to get started with a new group," comments Sioux, "the few doors that were open are firmly locked and double locked. We're still having to fight to stay in there, and get played on the radio."
The Banshees did at times find themselves fighting to remain a band, losing members at critical intervals, scrambling for replacements. But never did a separation occur between the original nucleus of the blonde bassist/lyricist Steve Severin and dark lyricist /vocalist Siouxsie Sioux. They remained in the fray together, bringing on nomadic wanderers until the consistent Budgie signed up for duty. But over their history guitarists remain the fluctuating entity within the group. Former members probably hold reunions[sic] to compare tenures and tours.
"We've been going for 12 years, and we've had four or five guitarists and that's probably four or five career spans for most bands in that 12 years," Sioux points out. "Most bands seem to last two or three years. And about the thing of guitarists, the thing going against most of them is that they don't experiment with their sound, and I like a guitar that doesn't sound like a guitar, that's very personal. It's the wrong attitude to expect the guitar to sound like something."
From the years of being a four piece, with this tour and album the Banshees are now a quintet, the richly textured sound on stage attesting to the addition of keyboardist/classically-trained cellist Martin McCarrick, he having worked with the group as far back as 1984's The Thorn EP. The newest in the line of the Banshees guitarists is Jon Klein, a name that might ring a bell with goth rock aficionados, he formerly with Bat Cave veterans Specimen. Joining the Banshees is a definite career move in the right direction!
Steve Severin gives more details on the growth of the newest incarnations of the Banshees. "I think ever since, well, it goes back to 1980 when the band had split in half, and it was basically me and Sioux writing the songs together in funny little rooms and kicking about on keyboards and things. And the music started developing in a way which was much more layered, more sounds, and when we came over to do the Tinderbox tour John Carruthers and I were having to cover for so many keyboard parts that were on the record that it almost became unenjoyable because the songs were so hard to play! I kept screaming 'let's get a keyboard player,'" he laughs, "but at that point everyone around me was saying we can't afford a fifth person traveling everywhere and feeding him too," he chuckles. "But near the end, when we were finishing Looking Glass, at that point we were working so well with Martin McCarrick in the studio with arrangements and keyboards. We were drifting away from guitarist John Carruthers, and when we said to John the time was up for this four piece the first person we talked to was Martin."
"So for about a month we were a four piece but without a guitarist! That's when we were writing things like 'Killing Jar,' without a guitar. And then the American tour was looming close and we thought, 'Oh God, we have to get a guitarist,'" he groans dramatically, "which was something we didn't want to get into, advertising and the like, but then a friend of mine suggested someone I never thought of, Jon Klein, who I had known for years, but didn't really know what he was doing. I just rang him, got him down and he was great! And that was the beginning of our five piece!"
Both Jon and Martin are assets to the band musically and visually, Jon taking advantage of this tour's exotic stage set to parade about and Martin is the man to watch during 'Peek-A-Boo.' Once he gains freedom from his cello and keyboards he dons his accordion and prances about like a wonderfully stylized puppet, stealing the visual drama from Sioux with surprising ease.
"We give him so much freedom," Steve agrees, "the thing is when people join, they enjoy the freedom the Banshees gives them. I mean before Martin was in Marc Almond's band and that was really set up, a backing band; we like to try and bring out as much in everybody as possible," as he gives a lightly evil laugh, "we give them a lot of rope and they hang themselves . . . then out!"
Do guitarists take out unemployment insurance ahead of time? Wouldn't winning the role of guitarist in the Banshees make one nervous? After a few years said candidate had better start checking the want ads!
"Yeah, but Jon has a really good attitude," reassures Steve, "and most of the time we just joke about the matter. It's always hard to answer the question about guitarists, as when you're in a proper band you must be more than a session player. The beginning bits with the new person are a problem. But the whole thing about the Banshees is it's the personalities involved, that's a criteria we made within the band. We're quite an eccentric bunch. The operation allows everybody to push themselves a bit, and find out what they are good at."
TO THE LEFT OF THE DIAL
Siouxsie and the Banshees, according to Sioux, "still hate the business, most of the business, and we're very reluctant to be cemented by the industry. And we've also never been desperate for press." But now the band is looking for more attention, seeking wider exposure to people who have been unaware of them twelve years, or whom have dismissed them as an eccentric, inaccessible band. Long gone are the days of twenty minute long renditions of the Lord's Prayer, and of being labeled bane. The Banshees are nothing to be afraid of, in person or on record. Radio programmers and record buyers are finding this to be true; the Banshees are now seeing Peep Show head up the Billboard charts. Siouxsie and the Banshees and Billboard. That sounds odd to the ear. Steve is definitely amused by the concept, he taking in Geffen's promotional wiz Mark Kates' information about charts and appearances after the Banshees' opening American blast at Rutgers University in New Jersey with a dazed look. "I don't follow any of this," he mocks with a weary smile, patiently awaiting the opportunity to find his bed.
Chart position and singles are nothing new to the Banshees in Britain, but in America they are an unconventional combination. The Banshees are still considered dangerous, adventurous, even new to many. Still new after twelve years. It would be nice if the same theory applied to cars and romances!
"It's all very strange to us," muses Steve a few days later. "We're not really aware of what top 40 radio is all about, since the system is so different in England and Europe. But it seems to be freaking out a lot of people that we're being added to the top forty."
It will freak out a lot more chart watchers if the Banshees even crack the Top Ten. The sound of fainting bodies will reverberate across the land.
"I think we're more than ready for it," he dryly laughs. "I don't think we'd get carried away by any sudden leap in success. We're pretty much retaining our sense of humor about these types of things. If it means that the sentiments of something like 'Peek-A-Boo' is sitting along side of Def Leppard and Bon Jovi then that's brilliant!" he laughs anew. "But what I think of success is first and foremostly making the record that you are pleased with, and that's the case with this album. But as far as getting top 40 airplay it's something we've never bent over backwards to get. It's an idea to some, I suppose, but we're not gonna be nice to all these people!" he decides with amusement.
I somehow don't doubt that! Sioux thinks Peep Show a strong album, not viewing it as a radical departure from the last works. Peep Show is a[sic] boldly intricate, yet simple album, with Sioux's distincly rich, sinuous voice in impeccable form. The album is far from the distanced affair some critics consider it to be. As a series of notes it bewitches with absurd ease, fluid and elegant ot the attentive ear, the visual imagery of the lyrics as evocative as before. From the sensitive 'Last Beat of My Heart' to the grandly melancholic sweep of 'Rhapsody' (the third single?) the album fascinates on many levels.
"I have no qualms about the album," echoes Steve. "And it's definitely not a particularly American album, as far as I think. But that's strange as well as our English company thinks the complete opposite: they think we've delivered an American album," he chuckles. "Not in terms of the material being slanted towards America but they felt that it would do well in America, which we never thought of at all!"
YOU AND ME AGAINST THE WORLD
The number twelve keeps coming up concerning the Banshees. A dozen years with ten albums worth of history. As Sioux said, that's a long time for a band that began out of such uneven times. Steve and Sioux write together, perform together, and after all of this time there must have been periods of friction between them, as both are intensely creative personalities with strong ideas and goals.
"Oh yeah, we fall in and out of favor with each other for long periods. But it's very much of a brother and sister relationship," describes Steve. "And there's . . . we basically don't trust anybody else, and that holds us together a lot. We protect each other from outside sources and, well, we don't ever fall out completely, we just don't get on as well for as long as periods of up to six months. Then it goes into a big show down where one goes, 'Well I think you’re being crap and I want to leave!'" he laughs, "but then it's you can't!"Destined to remain together until eternity's end or some other overly poetic saying. Poetic sayings aren't what one gets when one makes the mistake of asking the Banshees about innovation and longevity, and then use the Damned as an example of other survivors. Sioux declares, "I personally didn't respect a group like the Damned when they started, and I certainly have no respect for them 12 years later." How silly of me to forget that! Steve later laughs about this, claiming, "We usually have a general rule in interviews not to say things about other bands as basically we'll only say bad things about them and why give them free publicity anyhow!"
But I still have no answer for my initial question about innovation. How is it that the Banshees have always managed to take that extra step and present something new with every album. The mysterious lyrical content and the Banshees feel permeates the overall presence but there's always a new edge, a new twist introduced in the music.
"I think you have to notice, and it is hard, that every album has to be an album of its time. You have to place it along side of what was happening at the time. There was a period when we were . . ." as he pauses to sort his thoughts. "There have been three points in our career where we were influential on other people, and those points were the first album Scream, then Juju and A Kiss in the Dreamhouse. Those three albums have made us stop and be aware of what we were doing in the way it was affecting other bands, and it made us more aware of what our moves should be next. So by the time we got to A Kiss in the Dreamhouse, and released that, there was this resurgence in guitar bands, and people like U2 and Big Country were coming up with hits, and our record company was going 'oh, this is such a great movement that people are getting into, with guitar bands, and they'll all latch onto you in a big way as you're such a guitar band' and we went WHAT?" he remembers in disbelief. "So we went, right, the next album Hyaena we'll put keyboards all over it and just fuck everybody up," he laughs. "So it's those kind of things that people quite naturally forget, what else is going on at the time, cause you always have to react to what people expect next. It might sound pompous, but it's very scary when you have one hundred bands playing Juju type of music: I just can't understand it. And I don't understand how we get saddled with very specific categorizations with our music as I'm of the opinion that each record doesn't sound very much like a record before that. I think that's a surface thing, if that one doesn't look beyond Sioux's image, if one doesn't look deeply into the record you're not going to notice the changes. I think we've been a bit too subtle at times," he concludes with a sigh.
But the band is not subtle about image, and that does have an impact on many people. They'll see the exotically dark Sioux and the blonde boys Severin and Budgie and simply latch onto that image. Certain clubs still harbor Sioux clones circa 1982. Will her Louise Brooks bob be the next rage? Sioux dismisses the stylistic debate, stating, "It's personal, an extension of what we're putting across. When it's personal and not manufactured there's a great difference." The image extends to videos, with 'Peek-A-Boo' playing up the jerky, shadowy dramatics of the band. "'Peek-A-Boo' was the first video done with a new video company, and we had to get in a choreographer for the boys . . . it's hard for them without instruments," laughs Sioux. "They don't know what to do when not playing their instruments! I think the director had worked with backwards children which helped! There's also usually an element of torture in making a video in that we'll think up some outrageous stunt for someone to do, but then not use it, one of which was while working with Tim Pope, ('Cities in Dust') he had this idea of a vat of floating fire and lava, and for someone to fall into it. Actually, it was a vat of petrol with bits of sawdust and bits of fire," she smiles, as Budgie wryly comments, "So it was perfectly safe."
Of course it was, and if not, just use a guitarist!
DR. CALIGARI AT THE CARNIVAL
Siouxsie and the Banshees are still answering the call of their own strong and strange muse: witness the dynamic new production they unveil with this tour. Watching Sioux perform at Rutgers I debate with my photographer if she is teaching aerobics courses on the side: the woman is in constant amazing motion, her astoundingly expressive left hand containing more energy then the average band as she uses it to entice, cajole, demand and describe. She looks better than I ever remember seeing her, full of power and venom[sic]. Steve Severin acts as if the universe revolves around his bass lines, shadow boxing during "Peek-A-Boo" as amusingly enough after having too much to do onstage because during this song he has few chords. Budgie, neatly near-hidden in the maze of the set, proves why one can never replace a real drummer. And Martin McCarrick alternates between cello, keyboards and accordian on the previously mentioned "Peek-A-Boo." By the time the band hits Radio City three nights later Jon Klein[sic] decides the stage is also his kingdom, prancing and dancing, utilizing the ramps and risers to stroll while strumming.
"With this tour, it's something new, something's always changing; we're always looking behind us to check what's there," as Sioux whips that bob against her cheek to playfully look over her shoulder, she still vibrant from her onstage exploits. "We're still off guard by the newness of it. And American audiences are so much more exciting than the British audiences, they respond more. I think in Britain a lot is taken for granted , they're more spoiled, they're fickle." Sioux defines a good audience as one that "doesn't remain seated in their chairs, and if they do keep sitting we send out for TV dinners!" Sioux is not one for sitting: it's the reason she prefers the East Coast over the West. "I want to be able to get out and do, to walk, and that's not the West coast's way. And everyone is so 'oh have a nice day,'" she grimaces good humoredly.
Then this is an Eastern show ... no sitting here! And no nice days, only torrid nights with the imaginary sixth member of the group, the stage set. After the Rutger's show Jon Klein is opting for motorcycles to ride about the ramps, while Budgie muses they just may not be able to get him out some night, ending up loading him drum kit and all onto the equipment truck. The set is impressive, full of colors, light and movement, with draperies dropping at specific intervals, ("We have two drapery roadies," Jon declares proudly) and band members gradually appearing. At the center is Sioux, resplendent in her Blue Angel 20's look: top hat, garter belts and boots. Her coy little strip tease in taking off her jacket endears her to the very males whom she mocks with her moves. Theater of the psychological, with fascinating twists and mental ties, menacing and marvelous.
But let's get an authority in here to explain the hows and whys of the physicality of this Peep Show. Enter Steven Severin. "We've felt for a long time, ever since 1981, which was a similar, not really similar in any way except in that it was a production, a show; we had stage lights and back projections. That was very over-the-top for that time, and we got a bit scared that we'd have to keep elaborating on it, and that things would get bigger and bigger so as usual we did the exactly the opposite, and toned it all down. But when we started to get to the end of recording of Peep Show it was time to put our heads together and come up with the proper set.
"It all sort of started when as we were doing the album we were referring to this book a lot which was called The Archeology of the Cinema which I found in a second hand shop in London, and it was concerned with very early devices that made moving pictures, starting as far back as with things like the Camera Obscura and Kaleidoscopes and such. Lots of strange devices and funny little illustrations to go with them, so we gave that to the set designer, and by that time we had the concept, the album title and we wanted to think of something that was vaudevillian or burlesque, something like a puppet theater and a bit like a carnival. All these ideas were thrown about concerning the set design. And then we came up with the idea of what people wouldn't expect would be if we started the show right up close, so . . . it evolved slowly from there.
"And we also thought that most people start off with a bang, and midway through the set they try and make it more intimate, and then it gets more and more as it goes along. We thought if we slowly reveal the stage so that is looks really small and we look really small on it, and that it looks bigger and bigger . . . So the designer got into the idea of using several different drapes, cause the idea was always to change the mood of the stage with each song, and that's something we also did on the 81 tour. We gave him loads of material, and told him the idea. The main idea that he came up with was the playground around the drum kit," he explains.
That designer came up with quite a playground twist indeed! The set compliments the music, the movement of the songs having a film feel of pacing, from the clicking voyeurism of "Red Light" to the open sordidness of "Peek-A-Boo." Plus a dash of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in the quivery, nervous look to the set and the idea of plundering dreams and childhood, especially during the haunting rendition of "Carousel."
"'Carousel' is trying to remember what's its like when you're a child--it's a bit cinematic and it reminds me of films like Funhouse or Hitchcock's Strangers On A Train, with the carousel at the end. It's not particularly horrific, but it gives a great feel. I think we did throw Caligari in there too!" Steve laughs, relating, "It was almost like working on a musical, as it's like we had more than three days to rehearse the whole show with the whole set . . . then we had to take it around Europe, and it wasn't until the end of Europe we had it down pat. It was almost like a month's rehearsal on the road. It does sort of send you off onto different things if you know when you go onstage exactly what set of songs you will be doing, and how to pace them, and then you get into the choreography. It's so much more inventive and invigorating to do a show like that then just go out and play all the greatest hits," he enthuses.
The Radio City Show truly looks like a late 20's film epic come to sound and life. The show fit in perfectly within that over-the-top character of the grand old deco palace, creating a spectacle for the senses.
Steve agrees, musing, "It was almost sort of designed for it, like a box with a huge stage."
Something that still puzzles me is the split tour idea. With the massive coordination the set requires, it is a surprise that the band is taking the show back home for a few dates and then coming back in late January.
"I think . . . we don't particularly like touring for a long time, that's one of the things," Steve explains. "You just get too numb and can't produce your best. I remember when we came over in 1986 we toured for two months and by the end everyone was like a robot, I mean all the songs had no mistakes whatsoever and we were all so tired, and there's something quite scary about that. The other side of it to also make the record company work a bit harder too," he laughs. "They have an opportunity to keep the album going, get the second single out (the magnificent 'Killing Jar') while we disappear for a while. And then we'll come back and the album should still be running!
"When we get back to England we have two weeks off, and then we got the opportunity go to some shows in Greece, four shows in Athens which could be fun, and then we do some shows around Christmas. We'll probably do some studio work and come back at the end of January, tour around more and go down to South America," he details, adding, "We'll probably spend most of the time thinking up some more bits and pieces to add to the show, because we want to develop it further, before we have to leave it in some warehouse to rot!" he chuckles.
So step right up and be a traveler along with the rest of us. Get your ticket and enter this world of shimmering darkness and shifting, flickering shadow but don't be nervous. Be spell bound, dazzled and take a slowdive into this night shift of obsession and rhapsody[sic]. Leave a note for those you love. But leave a trail of twine on your way in as the way out is hard to find. Better yet, take a knife in case you decide to cut loose and stay a while. Some find it hard to leave. And some see no good reason for leaving.