The Times Metro Music (10.10.98)
In the Seventies she led the Bromley contingent out of suburbia and into every parent's nightmare. Nowadays she's more into gardening, Emily Dickinson and her cats. Nigel Williamson enters the weird world of Siouxsie Sioux.
The big interview - Siouxsie pseud?
There is an obvious hubris about interviewers claiming an affinity with their subjects, but Siouxsie Sioux and I genuinely have a lot in common. You see, we both grew up in Bromley, Kent, a stultifyingly conservative suburb of lace curtains and manicured lawns, which arguably left us both scarred for life. We are of similar age - Siouxsie is 41 - and 20 years ago we inevitably knew the same people and frequented the same pubs. We didn't go to the same school but I am still in touch with at least three old friends who have stories to tell of the young Susan Dallion in the playground of her Chislehurst primary school. Yet there was one defining moment when our paths diverged. Back in late 1975 or early 1976, we found ourselves at the same gig at the local art college. It was one of the very first performances by the Sex Pistols. Siouxsie and her mates decided it was the most exciting thing they had ever heard and went away to become the famous Bromley contingent, the first organised followers of what would soon be known as the "punk explosion". My mates and I, on the other hand, thought it was the most appalling racket and shuffled off in our Afghan coats to roll another spliff and return to our Grateful Dead albums. All these years on, I still wonder which of us was right. Sometime later in September 1977, I found myself sharing the same ferry back from Holland with Siouxsie and her band, the Banshees, returning from a gig in Amsterdam. I spent the entire voyage hiding from them. She rocks with laughter at the memory. "Ha! You thought all those evil punks were going to kick the s**t out of you, didn't you?"
We are having lunch in an Indian café in London's Covent Garden to talk about Siouxsie's more recent re-emergence with The Creatures, the band she ran for years with her husband Budgie as a side project but which, since the Banshees disbanded in 1996, has become the main attraction.
The Creatures play adventurous art rock built around Siouxsie's extraordinary voice and drummer Budgie's battery of percussion. After a toe-in-the-water EP during the summer and a couple of low-key live dates, they have just released the single, Second Floor, trailing a new album, Anima Animus, due out in March.
Siouxsie seems wonderfully tranquil, one of those fortunate women who at 41 look better than they ever have - her skin soft and glowing. She is tall and slender, still dresses in black and she turns heads as we walk up Endell Street. Budgie appears almost as arresting with his peroxide-dyed hair. In the café, a sitar player drones pleasantly in the background (he turns out to be the owner) and someone takes a flash picture. Neither of them blinks and I am not sure if they even noticed.
I have been warned by their publicist not to dwell on the past. I don't need to, for within five minutes Siouxsie is complaining about how she misses the "spontaneity" and the "altruism" of the early days. "You're talking about the past," Budgie admonishes, but she ignores him.
"You have to make sense of the past to make sense of the future," she says. "Unless you learn from what made you dissatisfied in the first place, you end up in the same old routine. It's not easy cleaning out the cobwebs to start all over again. You can't sweep 20 years away completely."
Indeed you cannot, especially if those years have made you something close to a legend. Siouxsie first achieved notoriety when she appeared with the Sex Pistols on an early evening television chat show in December 1976. The band played up to their drunken, foul-mouthed image and guaranteed tabloid headlines the next morning with a string of four-letter words. But it was Siouxsie who caught the eye in her Clockwork Orange make-up, black leather and fishnets, her hair teased into an electrical storm. She flirted with presenter Bill Grundy who, too self-satisfied to detect her mocking scorn, proceeded to ask her for a date on air. At that stage we had no idea what else she could do, but it was obvious she had something.
My early recollections of Banshees gigs are that the band couldn't play and Siouxsie could not sing. She made some silly mistakes: sporting a swastika on stage ("childish" she now admits). The band was turned down by six record companies and, with punk fast running out of steam, they looked to have missed the boat. Yet by the time they were eventually signed by Polydor and their debut album, The Scream appeared in 1978, they had somehow moved beyond the punk thrash ethic to create an arresting collection of dark, angular songs full of strange rhythms and musical abstractions. Punk gave way to Goth and Siouxsie became its female icon on songs such as Halloween and Voodoo Dolly. Thousands copied her look and they still turn up at her concerts dressed like extras from the Addams Family. She swiftly grew out of it, and today denounces Goth as "pantomime". But she continued making intelligent, challenging music, both with the Banshees and The Creatures, the avant-garde off-shoot she and Budgie first launched in 1983.
Two years ago the Banshees finally called it a day. Siouxsie had already decided it was time to do something else and the disgust at the cynical reunion of her old friends the Sex Pistols hastened the decision. Disillusioned with the record industry, Siouxsie and Budgie retreated to their house in a village outside Toulouse, France.
"The music industry was so grinding," she says. "There was no room for spontaneity. We took things for granted." In fact, it had come to feel exactly like the confining routine Siouxsie had left Bromley to escape. "I've never had a proper job but I imagine that is what it feels like. It was horrible," she says.
On the underground dance scene, however, she and Budgie began to see a way forward again. They struck a deal with the dance label Hydrogen Dukebox to run their own bijou independent company. "The modern dance scene has more energy, it's closer to the spirit of why we first started," says Siouxsie. "We intend to operate outside that tight, organised way of doing things. It's about bringing back the openness and spontaneity and getting rid of all the baggage. I'm the same person but I wasn't happy being part of something that was so established."
She says the word as if it is tainted. Like some Maoist adherent of the theory of permanent revolution, as soon as anything begins to feel safe and comfortable, she wants to change it. Much of this attitude seems to stem from her hatred of her suburban upbringing. She hasn't been back in years but all her language is still couched in the vocabulary of entrapment and escape.
She is fascinated to hear that I have only moved ten miles up the road to the leafy lanes of Westerham and have taken the train from Bromley that very morning to meet them.
"The suburbs are the most narrow place you can come from," she says. "It isn't the city where things are happening and it isn't a rural situation where you are in touch with nature. It is neither and the mentality is a narrow-minded, middle-class respectability in which everybody tries to conform and blend in with everybody else."
It is also an attitude loaded with hypocrisy. "And what goes on behind that respectable veneer? Maybe there is an alcoholic or a complete neurotic mess. Yet the will to preserve the outwardly normal exterior is obsessive." And she knows: her own father was an alcoholic and she was brought up never to talk about it.
Yet she is sharp enough to realise that it was the suburbs that made her what she is. "It is an amazing breeding ground to kick back against and, yes, if it wasn't for that environment I might not have burst out in the way I did and been so aggressive in my rejection of its values. It was stifling and I hated it. It was so very English and I never felt particularly English."
Which partly explains why Siouxie and Budgie, who married in 1993, now live across the Channel. They paint a picture of rustic domesticity and marital bliss; Budgie cycling around the village and Siouxsie pottering in the garden and feeding her cats.
"We were desperate for some sense of ordinary community where you can interact with the people around you," says Budgie. "In London the signals are so confused that it just becomes a jumble in your head," But isn't there a conflict here between their art and their lifestyle? They have just been telling me how they hate anything safe and comfortable and here is Budgie talking cosily about how he can leave his bike anywhere without needing to lock it up and Siouxsie waxing lyrical about deadheading the roses.
"Of course not," she says. "I'm aware of how people want to preserve a cartoon image of me but I refuse to be inhibited by it." And when you think about it, she is right. The Creatures' music is edgy and dark but what right do we have to expect that to be mirrored in the way they live their personal lives? "Exactly," says Budgie. "Though you should see her slashing away at the roses in her spiky heels and patent leather gloves."
"Was it frightening when you used to go out dressed like that?" he asks Siouxsie. She admits that it was. "But knowing you would attract attention and ridicule was the thrill."
"I grew up in St Helens and we ran the gauntlet when punk started," he muses. "We were threatening to people. Everybody my age wanted to get a job and get married and have a family. I didn't and I felt very isolated. I joined a band to be in a gang."
So much for not dwelling on the past. I am sitting here with two old punks growing misty-eyed about the alienation of their youth. I ask Siouxsie if it feels strange still to be doing what she does at her age. "I am shocked by the passage of time. You think of stuff that happened 15 or 20 years ago and it seems like last week. But it is only when journalists write about a female artist that they talk about age. You'd never ask that question of a male artist."
I tell her that I am interviewing Mick Jagger shortly and plan to ask him exactly the same. "But that is different," she insists. "They decided a long time ago to continue just being the same old Rolling Stones. That's the job they do." Changing tack, I ask if she has ever regretted not having children.
"I never wanted kids. There seems to be an epidemic of people having children and I don't need to add to it," she says. It sounds like a rehearsed answer but then she softens. "Sometimes I think I would have liked to have had a daughter. But we have cats. One of the reasons we moved to France was to have more room for them."
At the end of the day, Siouxsie and Budgie remain a paradox. The press release they put out to announce The Creatures' return name-drops Nijinsky, Frida Kahlo and Emily Dickinson. They recently staged an evening at the Lux cinema, a London art movie house, showing clips from their favourite and mostly very esoteric films. Then at their comeback gigs they gave away a free seven-inch single called Sad C**t. It seemed as puerile as the swastika incident all those years ago.
"I don't believe in being provocative for the sake of it," Siouxsie says defensively. "I'm trying to reclaim why I got involved in this in the first place. I hate this wagging of fingers saying you can't do that. And I reject the idea that you can't talk about art because you are a pop singer. We have always been much more eclectic. There aren't any rules apart from trying to remain unpredictable. Most people want stability and think the less surprise the better. It shocks me how many people want that from their music."
She seems to be talking about those people in the suburbs again. When we part I tell her I am taking the train back to Bromley. She is warm and friendly and hopes that we will meet again soon. But she doesn't ask me to convey her fond regards to the place of her birth.
The single Second Floor by The Creatures was released on Sioux Records on October 5. The album Anima Animus is due for release in February.