Steven Severin Interview (March '87)
Siouxsie and the Banshees' new LP "Through The Looking Glass" is made up of 100% covers. Is this a new artistic step or have they simply run out of ideas? In that case, isn't it better to put the beast out of its misery? John McCready reports from London.
Ten years ago, Siouxsie and the Banshees' first performance consisted of one song; a funeral version of "The Lord's Prayer" was shredded alive by the Banshees' disembowelment of religion and rock.
"The Lord's Prayer" allowed Siouxsie to spew scorn over something traditionally sacred while enticing her to parody equally worn rock cliches. The mangling of "Twist And Shout" and "Knockin' On Heaven's Door," in the middle of a regurgitated religious dirge, still smacks of the hopelessly romantic nihilism which was used to turn punk into myth.
A decade later, the Banshees' fascination with "the cover" comes full circle with the release of their tenth LP, Through The Looking Glass.
The mythical glamour of that edgy opening cover now recedes into bleakly double-edged irony. That badly-executed, jarry "Lord's Prayer" purgation has been replaced forever by a competent Banshees' concept album of cover-versions--released in the week that 25% of Britain's Top Of The Pops show is given over to old songs and reinterpretations of classic ditties, with the top four slots being held down by covers and re-releases.
Siouxsie and the Banshees--for so long at spikey odds with contemporary revivalism--are at last reduced to the status of being firmly in step with conventional pop scheming.
In a pop time so desperately bereft of inspiration, so infected with plagiarism and nostalgia, Through The Looking Glass is merely adequate and mildly interesting when the Banshees really needed to release a record with the impact--if not the sound of The Scream.
And that this LP of covers is actually an improvement on their more recent "original" offerings is an even more cutting indictment of the Banshees' inability to restore the faded pertinence of their pop subversion.
Tired of such carping and doubting, Siouxsie chooses to avoid our mild-mannered encounter and it's Steve Severin alone who's confronted with the tedious task of trying to justify the release of a covers LP in a copyist-infested pop climate. With seemingly unconscious irony, Steve sports a blonde crop which is no dissimilar to that favored by the current top-selling cover artist, Boy George. However, we decide to ignore this irony and Steve begins the defense.
"I know that some people have been saying that we lost our spark of inspiration during the last few albums, but it's almost inevitable that things change over the years. The most important thing about our decision to do this record of covers was that it allowed us to work at a very fast pace again--that really was therapeutic.
"The last couple of albums have been a case of us going into the studio without enough material to record, or else that we've gone into the studio too soon after writing so that we haven't been able to look at the songs with any real detachment. Obviously with this record all the material was already written and we just had to rethink and rearrange the songs. We became especially interested in the exercise of delving into other people's songs and seeing how simple a song can be again. Maybe we also realized that we were putting too many elements in our songs and making them over-complex."
Contrary to cliche, Steve Severin is not the "arrogant and difficult bastard" he's made out to be by pop writers who mistake an initial reticence for surly conceit. Severin does open himself up tentatively to criticism and, in a similar way, the Banshees almost willingly set themselves up for their critics by accepting the easy option in Through The Looking Glass.
"Yeah, of course we knew that people would criticise us. But we've been thinking about this project for a long time...ever since we did 'Dear Prudence.' What a lot of people seem to have missed is the point that most of the cover exercises before have been done by solo artists. It's unusual for a band who've got a very distinctive sound to attempt an album of covers. We aren't compared to many people. It's usually the other way round, the people are compared to us."
The most immediate comparison that has to be made now is between Through The Looking Glass and Nick Cave's Kicking Against The Pricks, a far superior record of covers. Whereas the Banshees rework other singers' songs with polite restraint, Cave strips his covers of their original identity so that they become easily controlled vehicles for his own obsessions. Cave can make songs as diverse as "By The Time I Get To Phoenix" and "The Carnival Is Over" sound like they were written especially to exorcise his own personal trauma. In contrast, the Banshees treat the cover version as a pop "exercise" and, consequently, their record lacks the wit and substance of "Pricks."
Steve is, naturally, more reticent about Nick Cave. "Well, quite a few others have mentioned the Nick Cave record to us in passing. I haven't heard it but, just by looking at the choice of songs, it seems to be merely an exercise in ego. And I don't think Nick Cave will ever turn into Johnny Cash...he does seem to be trying hard though."
Through The Looking Glass is less a warped glance into the prism of past pop than a strangely unsatisfactory mix of the soothingly familiar and the unexpectedly bizarre. Iggy Pop's "Passenger," an obvious Banshees choice, mingles awkwardly with something like their "Strange Fruit" which is weak and absurd interpretation of Billie Holliday's version.
The Banshees' scheme is clear enough--inclusion of songs by Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, Television, The Doors and John Cale allows the group to remember their own favorite influences while the insertion of "Strange Fruit" and The Jungle Book's "Trust In Me" possess a twist of surprise.
As Steve stresses: "Something like 'The Passenger' is an obvious favorite and we really wanted to do a Roxy song; we've been playing 'Little Johnny Jewel' at soundchecks for years--basically because we've always liked it. But we also wanted an element of surprise on the record, we wanted to do songs which people wouldn't expect us to cover."
This willingness to stretch Banshee pop apart to accomodate a song as different as `Strange Fruit' is admirable; the execution, however, is infinitely less desirable with Siouxsie getting nowhere near the stark sorrow that swelled Billie Holliday's singing.
Steve attempts a struggling explanation of the "Strange Fruit" choice: "When we decided to formulate a list of possible songs we could cover, a big stumbling block was the lyrics. You just couldn't imagine Sioux singing any Tamla song because they all seem to be about rejection and pitiful lovers."
The reality of Siouxsie singing "Strange Fruit"--in a way which suggests that the song might actually be about eating unusually large apples in a Holland Park back garden--is admittedly less absurd than the idea of her tripping through "Baby Love." But did Siouxsie experience any qualms about singing such a harrowing Billie Holliday song about the Deep South?
"Not at all. I don't think Siouxsie had heard Billie Holliday before we listened to 'Strange Fruit.' And I think that anyone can sing a protest song. But what interested us most about 'Strange Fruit' was the fact that originally there was no set music, with it being based on an old poem."
It still doesn't work and the Banshees are much more at ease working with familiar loves like 'The Passenger' and 'Little Johnny Jewel.' But even here they encountered difficulties: "We tried a few early Stooges songs but it just sounded wrong...we felt just stupid trying to play 'Gimme Danger'...and then we thought for about a week that we couldn't possibly get away with covering 'Passenger.' Eventually we said, 'let's just do it and see what it sounds like...'
"And the Roxy Music choice was really hard. We tried 'Pyjamarama' and 'Street Life' but we just decided that there wasn't much point. It was difficult to find a Roxy song which we could change for the better. So we eventually chose 'Sea Breezes' which is not a particular favorite of anyone...but at least we could add something to the original."
'The Passenger,' 'Little Johnny Jewel' and a slinky reworking of 'Trust In Me' are the exceptions on an otherwise bland workout of old songs. With such a low return of inspiration it makes one wonder what still motivates the Banshees.
Inevitably the answers creep around slowly. Money and travel--from Hungary to Argentina--would appear to be the most tangible reasons but Steve chooses instead to emphasize a more abstract argument for the Banshees' continued existence.
"Like most people we probably don't live up to our ideals...like everybody else we have to adapt and compromise. But we do have a very firm base which means that the compromises that we do concede are insignificant. My own idea of what a Banshee is will probably go to my grave. Even if the group ended today my whole 'Banshee' vision would remain. And we will continue for some time because that vision motivates us to do things with a certain amount of dignity...it makes us spiritually motivated to do things properly, to be moral..."
There is still an undeniable "dignity" and "morality" about Siouxsie and the Banshees--even when they're reduced to covering an album of old songs in a pop world bent on destroying anything deeper than shallow conceit and slavering money-lust.
For that alone, they "matter"--but after ten years of post-punk Banshees' pop it's clear that creativity and inspiration have been devoured by competence and efficiency.
As for radical reworkings of old songs and standards, who really needs the Banshees when we've already heard the same idea opened up more scathingly, more searchingly, by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Youssou N' Dour, and hip-hop?