Trouser Press (February '81)
by Tim Sommer
Siouxsie and the Banshees have never been known to follow others' leads; their bleak musical visions, with abstract lyrics and stark walls of sound, preceded depressos like Joy Division or the Pop Group by years. They didn't even sign a recording deal until mid-1978, making them one of the last holdouts of the original punk boom, and it wasn't until late 1980 that they toured America (nearly half a decade after their London debut).
All these delays in the Banshees story have been by design, not accident, and have pretty much worked in their favor. They *could* have recorded long before they did, but by waiting they were able to get a good, flexible contract. They *could* have toured America two and a half years ago, but the nearly negligible audience for new British music in the US at that time would have made the jaunt a pointless failure (as proven by '77-'78 tours by the Jam, Ian Dury, the Stranglers and Eddie and the Hot Rods). Siouxsie and the Banshees have remianed true to their musical vision over the years, and British music has caught up to them rather than the Banshees having to catch up to anyone else.
It's difficult now to consider bassist Steve Severin and singer Siouxsie Sioux with the trend-setting, style-conscious faces posing at the 100 Club or talking to Sid Vicious in oft-reprinted photos from 1976. The immense changes over the years have been chronicled elsewhere; for the Banshees, it's meant three Lps, a couple of line-up shuffles, many UK tours and a few bootlegs. They're currently at the point where they can be pretty sure that anything they release will land in the British Top 20, and they've finally decided to come over to America, even though they have no US label and are financing the tour themselves.
It's a normal soundcheck at New York's Irving Plaza: long drawn out and vaguely aggravating. Siouxsie Sioux, however, is suprisingly cheerful, almost playful as she makes a face at Rick Nielsen on the cover of Trouser Press and then leads the way upstairs in search of a dressing room in which to hold an interview. The risque and teasing precociousness of 1976's Siouxsie has been replaced by a commanding maturity; her clothes and make-up are distinctive but tasteful. She's much taller than expected, and her hair is tucked into a short-brimmed cap, revealing a broad and angular face. Siouxsie is not pretty in the conventional sense, but is definitely striking and handsome.
By the time Polydor released their debut (and sole American) LP, The Scream, in late '78, the Banshees had already been through a flurry of line-up changes. By the time they got around to recording, the band had settled down to Sioux, Severin, John McKay on guitar and Kenny Morris on drums. The Scream is an odd record for the year of power pop--harsh, often bleak, but just as often melodic. The lyrics just stop short of ridiculousness, but somehow they work; the identifiably Banshees sound consists of thump and roar, and that clear, striking alto voice. For the balance of the Scream these elements produce a very intriguing and successful record.
Its follow-up a year later, Join Hands, is a bit less approachable--not so much a collection of songs as sounds. In retrospect it seems pretentious and a step in the wrong direction, but Siouxsie disagrees: "Well, I think it's a great album. It's an *extreme* album." Severin adds: "It's the album that the band always wanted to make."
Two dates into a tour to support Join Hands, their largest and most important jaunt so far, Morris and McKay walked out on the band. "I expected more from those two than to just run away from a gig and never show their faces again," Siouxsie says. "We'd known them for three years; despite the tension and the strain, it wasn't because we didn't have the same idea about things, it's just because we were four people who were practically living with each other and not doing much more than working with each other." Robert Smith, leader of the Cure (the Banshees' support band on that tour), filled in for the remaining dates, and drummer Budgie was taken from the Slits to replace Morris. The band decided almost immediately to continue despite the rift. "It's funny," Siouxsie remembers. "It felt sort of positive because it seemed like the right time for it to happen."
Budgie became a permanent member, and the band began work on Kaleidoscope. If the lyrical content hadn't brightened up, at least the Banshees sound was different. Gone were the thick slabs of guitar, and Morris's heavy-handed thuds were replaced by Budgie's intricate and ingenious percussion. Most significantly, the Banshees were using melodies to carry the album and enliven the songs, which were their most varied and listenable yet. According to Severin, most of the songs were written on the bass without the guitar "even being thought about."
Walter Lure of the Heroes, opening for the Banshees that night, and a friend of Siouxsie's from the days when his heartbreakers did the "Anarchy in the UK" tour in late '76, leans over a balcony at Irving Plaza and shouts down: "Siouxsie, you look like a Nazi dyke!"
Siouxsie looks up, squints toward the balcony, and earnestly asks Lure to repeat what he said; she hadn't heard him. Lure responds, "Oh, it's just as well you didn't hear."
At that night's gig Siouxsie didn't exactly look like a Nazi dyke, but she did resemble an early-'30s bohemian student of uncertain gender--a sharp contrast to the feminine and seductive aura she projected at the other dates on the tour. During the years she has been a public figure, Siouxsie's style of dress and decorum, originally unique and outrageous, has come to be accepted, emulated and almost standard in certain circles. Her social status has changed accordingly.
"I can afford to get a cab to somewhere now. Plus, I'm living in London, which is a very tolerant place; it's 1980 now, anyway. But a few years ago, when I was living in the suburbs of London, I was almost risking being attacked for going out the way I looked. I was traveling on British Transport the way anyone would; it was just a risk going out."
Did she enjoy the attention she got for her troubles--the tabloids and sensationalist TV shows?
"At first I was thrilled, like anyone who sees themselves in print; to an extent it's an ambition. It's even weirder seeing something you say down in print. But the novelty wears off. Before, at least no one knew my name when they thought, 'God, what's that walking down the street?' But it doesn't really bother me because I like what I'm doing."
In four years Siouxsie has progressed from wearing swastikas to star of David (this tour's emblem), giving rise to questions about the Banshees' use of symbolism.
Steve Severin smiles shyly, shrugs and looks slightly bemused. Most questions asked Severin and Sioux draw long silences followed by a short answer or agreement. They don't like talking about what they feel is obvious. Siouxsie eventually explains her views on journalists writing about the Banshees:
"This sort of thing is an unnatural situation *full stop*. I think maybe explaining things in this unnatural situation is usually not very accurate. I see things that I've said, and though sometimes I've been badly quoted or misquoted, other times I just haven't expressed myself very well. You come to realize that you have to have the knack of expressing yourself in an interview situation--which I don't think I can do, except on freak days. Some days I can talk for hours about the band, be very comprehensible and entertaining and god knows what else, and it'll be fine. But it's something I just can't snap on."
"I think I always try to communicate, because you waste a hell of a lot of time not doing things because you're not in the right mood for it."